Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
–Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
Such a tantalizing invitation. I have wandered into Rumi’s sun-dappled field often enough now that its fragrance stays with me. But as someone who has been soul-crushingly preoccupied with “getting it right” all my life, such a place of moral freedom sometimes feels as far away as the moon.
Publishing my memoir, Ollie Ollie In Come Free, created more challenges for my good-girl self than I ever imagined. Its honesty transgressed unwritten laws I’d internalized as a child. To complicate things further, writing about my inner world, my childhood grief and longings, I inevitably exposed my family’s world as well. I had painstakingly discerned the rightness of my book as a loving offering to both my family and those beyond it, but how natural it has been for me to get lost in the constricted energy field of shame and guilt, far away from Rumi’s meadow!
I should have expected an unleashing of self-chastisement with publication. After all, every time in my life that I have spoken boldly, I have suffered a backlash. I am truly an expert on shame. I’ve read a lot about it, to see what professionals have to say, but I don’t think most of them have explored it from inside out. It’s generally defined as the affect that serves to hold us back from any self-expression that might disconnect us from those we care about. Bert Hellinger, founder of the Family Constellation work that so moves me, speaks in similar terms of guilt, which he feels arises when we violate the “family conscience.” Whatever actions a family condones or shuns creates an individual’s sense of right and wrong, much more than any moral absolutes from on high.Yet didn’t we learn in Sunday school that guilt was the voice of God?
I think the powerful conscience of a family, church, culture, or any system where we need to fit in leads to a blurred distinction between shame and guilt. Thus behaviors each family considers “inappropriate” carry the full weight of sin. In my family, like so many others, revealing our private, inner lives creates a visceral sense of “wrongness” just as much as lying or stealing. But why?
Through doing family constellation workshops I have seen again and again that shame and guilt are seldom the simple product of our personal childhood experiences. Their burden flows down through generation after generation. The terror of being exiled from the family may be based on historical reality. Most of us never test the family conscience to find out what will happen if we violate it. Most of us never realize it exists. It is the sea we swim in. So it is likely that for the young girl-child I once was, the shame I often felt, and grew up immersed in, was in fact an intimate energetic resonance with generations of mothers and grandmothers shaking their fingers at their reflected selves: “Bad girl. Bad girl!”
By the time I finished writing Ollie Ollie In Come Free, I felt no judgment for any one of its cast of characters, only a gentle, grateful, and even transcendent love. So I was caught off guard when family members winced at my portrayal of them. I was flung back into an agony of self-doubt and wonderment at my naivete. How had I dared to expose our family’s life to the outside world? Yet it was my own mother’s voice that actually answered my question one day from deep inside me. Her words, often spilling out in exasperation when she was alive, took on a new context. “Because there’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of!” For any of us. This is my mother’s enlightened vantage point, now that she is able to see clearly.
As a child I learned to lean over backward, so backward that I contorted my whole being, not to hurt people. And so it was that I sacrificed my voice, my truth, my desire to be seen, my yearning to be an active agent in my life. The habit of protecting others at all costs from feeling hurt or shame has carried into my adult life; it has sometimes prevented me from being an effective supervisor at work, and has often led to timidity in situations where boldness is called for. So I am grateful that the challenges of publishing my memoir are teaching me my deepest lessons about truth-speaking.
In this act of releasing my authentic being into the world, I have come to see that both my guilt and shame emerge from my smaller self. And this is not the self I am meant to offer as a gift to the world. I want to live in a larger reality, in a more expansive, more loving energy field which I know is our real home.