There’s this old prayer of confession in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition that feels, well, out of step with today’s world. In older versions, we “bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.” Even in today’s Book of Common Prayer, “we do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.”
By and large, postmodern folks don’t think this way anymore. We regard it as shaming, twisting ourselves into a pretzel of self-flagellating guilt. As children of the psychotherapeutic age, we’ve seen—and often felt firsthand—the corrosive damage shame can cause, so we naturally recoil from prayers like this. I think that’s a good instinct.
But what do we do with our dark side? Many of us still feel shame for our failures, though perhaps in a more generic, secular way. Because of that shame, we often suppress our shortcomings in any way possible.
Or, perhaps more accurately, we ignore them. We choose not to think about the way we use people, or the times we compromised our values and shouldn’t have, or the lies we’ve told. Instead, we present a pleasant façade to the world.
Over time, we may even come to believe the façade ourselves. We bury what Carl Jung famously called our shadow.
I think there’s a better way, and it came up in silent prayer recently. It goes like this:
It’s OK to look at our own failings and shortcomings and simply accept them as part of ourselves—at least as part of ourselves for now. It’s an acknowledgment of the hot mess within us that makes us human.
So when I say, “I often keep quiet to avoid conflict when I should speak up,” I’m not speaking from low self-esteem, or looking for comfort. Rather, I’m acknowledging a painful truth about myself—honestly, with sadness, but without shame. Do I wish I didn’t avoid conflict in this way? Absolutely. Do I hope to be better? Yes. But is this me, right now? Yes, it is.
This is the kind of thing that Holy Cross Monastery (the place where I’m an associate) talks about when it describes the virtue of humility: “Humility is not self-denigration; it is honest appraisal. We have gifts and deficiencies, as does everyone else. We start from there, remembering that God loves each of us with a unique but equal love.”
When we do this, we are closer to our true selves—all of our true selves.
We are also closer and more compassionate to one another. When I see myself honestly, with clarity, without shame, I realize the deep truth of that wonderful bumper sticker (based on a quote allegedly from Margaret Mead): always remember that you are absolutely unique…just like everybody else. We see our humanity in all its aspects, which enables us to see one another’s humanity in all its aspects. The more we identify with someone, the more we can empathize—and love.
And God knows we need more love in the world.