Piercing the Veil of Shame

When I was first found out that I was pregnant, I knew that the little bean growing inside of me was a girl. It didn’t surprise me, then, when the ultrasound confirmed it. Dave and I decided on the name Maya soon after. “Maya” has many different meanings, but the one that resonated for me was the Hindu or Buddhist connotation of “illusion”, that the world around us is illusory. But if we learn to pierce the veil of that illusion, ultimate reality or ultimate truth is revealed.

When Maya was born I hoped at that moment that she and I would continue the powerful bond that I feel with all of the women in my family. I hoped that the world she was born into would value her unique gifts, not despite being female, but because she is female.

That hope has been put to the test by some recent, very tragic events which have forced me to really look at the world she will grow up in. In the last several months there have been at least three reported cases in Canada and the U.S. of adolescent girls who have taken their own lives after photos of them being sexually assaulted were circulated on social media and then used to torment and shame them. I cannot imagine the pain these girls endured and the terrible grief and loss their families are now left with.

It is difficult not to feel disheartened and demoralized when faced with the ugliness that continues to exist in this world; ugliness that seems disproportionately to impact children and women. And I wonder how I will possibly be able to prepare Maya to navigate this new reality, a reality for which I am, admittedly, woefully ill-equipped. Smart phones, capable of sharing your darkest secrets with the world, did not exist when I came of age.

The sensible part of my brain tells me that there are, of course, practical strategies I can employ when Maya is older. I can teach her about safe sex, forbid her to go to parties that are unsupervised, warn her of the dangers of drinking, do my best to ensure that she trusts me enough to be able to tell me anything. But if she is anything like I was, those strategies may be rendered useless.

My own adolescence was filled with painful lessons I learned the hard way despite the many warnings, prohibitions and groundings. I was forbidden from going to unsupervised parties and drinking underage. I did it anyways. Of course I had no idea how to drink. No one taught me that. And like most teen girls, I desperately wanted to fit in without really knowing how to go about doing that. I wanted boys to like me. I didn’t want anyone to know how dorky I really was, so I showed off to appear “cool” and “older”. If offered a full glass of straight brandy, I would take it and chug it down. Looking back, those attempts at being grown up were ridiculous, like a toddler thinking they’re grown up because they can put their pajamas on by themselves. But that is the point really. Adolescents live in a strange world in which they know little about, but are required to fake knowledge and sophistication just to survive in it. Their inexperience is quickly spotted by the more worldly (or opportunistic) and easily exploited.

My determination to :”fake it” in that world resulted in being perilously close to alcohol poisoning on a few occasions, leaving me with few, if any memories of that period of time. The memories I do have aren’t pretty. Thinking about it now, I realize just how vulnerable I was, and how completely dependent on the good-will of the people who happened to be around me, most of whom I had never met. It didn’t help that they were also drunk and barely had the capacity to take care of themselves, let alone me.

For the most part, I was fortunate. Any pain, embarrassment or humiliation I suffered was relatively minor. However, had there been photos or video to serve as constant reminders of my youthful lack of judgment, I am very aware that my humiliation would have been compounded exponentially. I was lucky. I got to put the events out of my mind as “lessons learned” and move on. Young women today do not have that luxury.

Social media has become an effective weapon to propagate something that has been used to control women from time immemorial: shame. Women and girls have been and continue to be indoctrinated to be ashamed of their bodies, ashamed of their sexuality, ashamed of their own power, their own voice. They have been taught that their worth is to be determined by others. When the propaganda “takes”, particularly in relation to sexuality, girls and women come to accept those messages, that they are ugly, bad, dirty, defective, blame worthy, worth less, valued less, unloveable. Shame is used to silence women and to subjugate them. It works by making them feel responsible and defective if they are sexually assaulted. Its success is mostly due to the fact that the institutions of our societies, our laws, our religions, cultures, education, health, media, families, communities and our governments, frequently reinforce those same messages.

How does a young woman withstand these powerful messages of shame, particularly at a stage of development when she is experimenting with her sexual identity? It takes heroic amounts of courage and strength. Education can help pave the way for an alternate discourse and allow her voice to be heard. Teaching boys and girls the notion of “enthusiastic consent” might help. I think that we also need to explicitly focus on deconstructing shame itself. It is the toxic effects of shame that poisons people’s ideas of their own worth. This is where the significance of “maya” and illusion arise.

I remember a professor trying to explain the concept of “maya” to me; that the reality we perceive is essentially illusory. I wasn’t getting it. He pointed to a table and explained that the table, on a molecular level, is not solid at all. There are vast amounts of space between each tiny molecule. He told me “The solidity of this table is an illusion.” Then he sat down on the table. “But it is one powerful illusion.” I got it.

So it is with shame. Shame is merely an illusion, albeit a very powerful one. That women should feel ashamed for being consensually sexual or sexually assaulted is a lie: it is an illusion. But because it is backed up by many of the institutions mentioned previously, it is an incredibly powerful one, even lethal.

In order to see the ultimate reality of women, that we are magical, beautiful, wise, valuable, nurturing, creative, sexual beings, powerful beyond measure, we as individuals and as a society need to pierce the veil of shame and see it for what it is; a tool for subjugation, a weapon used to silence girls and women and keep them in their place.

Is combating shame the last battleground of the women’s movement? If so we must re-claim our warrior side. Our battle cry: “No more”.

How do we pierce this veil? How do we, as women and men, girls and boys, withdraw our consent, opt out of the propaganda? What small and large acts of protest can we engage in? How do we deconstruct shame so that we no longer permit it to be associated with women’s sexuality or as part and parcel of sexual assault?

I believe that in many parts of the world we have reached a critical mass where it has become safe enough, for most people, to speak out. There are other places in the world, however, (not just countries but families too) where women who have the courage to speak out risk physical injury or death. But when the critical mass has been reached, and speaking out does not risk one’s physical safety, the only weapon left is shame. And shame requires our participation, our agreement. If we withdraw our agreement, the veil is pierced and shame is revealed for what it is: a smoke screen, a magician’s trick, an illusion.

Piercing the veil of shame is like climbing a mountain; one small act of protest after another. Each time someone speaks out against messages of shame the veil is pierced. Each time someone stands side to side with the person being shamed the veil is pierced, the illusion is revealed for what it is. Each time a community comes together to demand justice for children and women the veil is pierced.

We cannot expect our girls and boys to do this alone. Shame is too powerful to withstand in isolation. We all, each of us, men and women, need to support any act of protest against shaming by standing together. We can be silent no more.

What would happen if shame is exposed as illusory? Would all of its power to silence and devalue women simply evaporate? If shame lost its power, what would change? I think everything would change. I think it is already happening.

What small (or large) acts of protest have you participated in or witnessed that has pierced the veil of shame? Mine are in the comments section. Please feel free to add yours.


Trust in the Process Part II

It has taken me a long time to trust in the process. It is a lesson I am constantly relearning because, by nature, I want to control things. I want to be in charge of my own life. I have learned the hard way, however, that I am not in charge. And when I try to be, when I try to control things and order them the way I think they should be, my life becomes more and more chaotic and out of control. It is the paradox of humanity.  The more we try to control things to get a certain result, the more certain it is that we will get the exact result we are trying to avoid.

Helicopter parenting is a good example. I’m sure that over involved parents mean well. They want to protect their children from failure, from being hurt, from suffering. But all of these things have value. They are important. In those failures, in that suffering, in that pain, lie wisdom, the ability to endure, and confidence that we can overcome adversity. Small, manageable experiences of pain and suffering help people to build tolerance, immunity if you will, to pain. It allows people to take control of the only thing they actually can control, the meaning and sense they make from suffering.

But when people are shielded from those small, manageable experiences, regardless of how well meaning that protection is, when suffering does find them, and it will, the pain will be unbearable. Having no experience managing small failures, they lack the skills needed to cope and find their way through them. And we cannot avoid pain. We cannot avoid loss. We cannot avoid failure. It will happen with or without our consent. It does not wait for us to be prepared for it.

I have had many, many experiences of loss. The first was when I was born and was taken from my birth mother and given to a new family. Even though they loved me and I felt their love, it was still a loss that took me many years to fully understand. I remember seeing a documentary about the Buddha and learned, for the first time, that the Buddha’s mother died shortly after he was born. I hadn’t known that and it made me so sad. The narrator wondered if this experience of profound loss was pivotal in the Buddha’s later understanding of the nature of suffering, which was foundational for his own enlightenment and his teachings.

I know first hand the results of avoiding the pain of loss. But grief is patient. It waits until you are ready to face it. I tried to control my life in an effort to avoid facing it, but the more I ran from it, the more chaotic my life became. My losses compounded because of my own recklessness, until one day I realized that I needed help. Picking up the phone to ask for it was the hardest thing I have ever done. It required me to surrender. And I am stubborn. I resisted. I felt that surrender would mean certain death or worse, insanity. But paradoxically, the moment I submitted, instead of death, instead of insanity, I was greeted with release. I was liberated.

From that point on, I did my best to stay out of my own way. My philosophy is that there is a path that I am supposed to walk; my purpose or my destiny if you will. But it is my choice to walk that path or not. The more I avoid it, however, the worse my life becomes. Walking the path is often terrifying, but in that fear I also feel a sense of calm from the wisest parts of myself. I trust in the process.

In order to stay on that path, I have learned that I need to pay attention to the parts of me that get anxious, who start to try frantically to control things. I pay attention to the part of me that becomes exhausted, overwhelmed and full of doubt, who would like nothing more than to be left alone, hiding under the covers. I also have to nurture the warrior part of myself, for staying on my path requires a great deal of courage and occasionally fierceness. I have committed to cultivating compassion for how difficult it is to be true to one’s purpose, particularly when one is still not sure exactly what it is. Not knowing what it is requires me to pay close attention to the world around me and to myself; to use not only my senses but my intuition and all of my ways of knowing.

This may all sound very serious, but probably the most important lesson has been to laugh, particularly at myself, to find the lightness in everything. Life can be so heavy! I likely spent a decade dedicated to self-absorption and that, quite frankly, is quite enough. To that effect, I have unilaterally decided that all of my flaws are actually quite endearing. I find myself hysterically funny and often ridiculous, knowing that I am often the only one cracking up. I don’t feel any need to wear makeup. I am the one who will ask the stupid questions. Finding myself endearing, loveable and ridiculous all at the same time as acknowledging my own power and wisdom, has resulted in being much less concerned about what people think of me. I am a contradiction and I like it that way.

It was this commitment to myself, to walking my path that allowed me to move forward after I left my ex-husband. Despite the pain of the lost hopes of that relationship and the agony of being childless, I knew, without reservation, that I would be fine. I would not give my permission for any man to destroy me, to destroy my ability to love without limit, destroy my determination to live an amazing life.

And looking back, it was absolutely necessary for him to break my heart. Because up until that point I had had my priorities completely wrong. When I first met him, the experience was one of intense familiarity, like I had known him for many lifetimes. I had historically been attracted to men who were intellectual, complicated, wounded, and charming. I privileged the head at the expense of the heart. So what if he wasn’t capable of loving with an open heart? I can handle that!

I was convinced that the expansiveness of my love would make him feel safe enough to be able to love back. But it wasn’t. I told him when we were first married that I knew that he hadn’t really opened up his heart to me. He did not deny it. He told me that he didn’t trust anyone. I warned him that the relationship could not work if he didn’t take that chance. But I decided to be patient. I had often thought of love as standing on the edge of a terrifyingly high cliff. The person beside you is telling you to jump. You look at them like they are insane. Clearly, they are insane, because if you jump it will be to your death. But they insist that you must jump. People who truly love take that leap of faith, against all logic, despite their terror, and in leaping into certain death; they realize that they can fly. It made sense to me that he was afraid. Who wouldn’t be?

I learned, in spectacular fashion however, that people who choose not to take that leap, people who remain in fear, are capable of indescribable cruelty. The heart actually matters. A lot. It seems so obvious now. Of course the heart matters Julie! How could you be so obtuse? But in my history, men who had wonderful open hearts were not for me. They were my best friends, but I refused to date them. People told me over and over that I just needed to be with a nice guy. But I refused. And now I realized why. I was too in my own head, too immature, too frightened of myself and what cruelty I was capable of to accept that love. I didn’t love or trust myself. And because of that, there was a very real possibility that I would be the cruel one. It wasn’t until I was subjected to my ex’s cruelty, coupled with the intoxicating knowledge of the power of my own love and compassion for myself that I finally got it.

And that’s when I met Dave.

Part III coming soon!