“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” – Brené Brown
I recently added track workouts to my running routine. As a recent participant in the Marine Corps Marathon, I now receive a workout plan tailored just for me in my inbox each week from Coach Tom. Each week’s workouts include some speedwork, and I use it to guide my schedule.
Last week, Coach Tom suggested I do six 400-meter intervals. I did seven (of course). Plus a warm-up and cool down.
I run these intervals on a track next to our local middle school. This track is the site of fierce competitions each spring when the children who attend the four elementary schools in our district compete against each other in track and field events. I still have the ribbons my own children won when they competed.
Thinking about these grade school competitions reminds me of my own primary school days and the races we ran on the playground.
When I was in first grade, I can remember idolizing an older girl, a sixth-grader named Pinky. Pinky was fast. She could beat everyone in the school, running from one end of the playground to the other. She was confident too. She accepted accolades from her classmates in an offhand way, like she didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
I remember once mustering all my confidence to talk to Pinky. I don’t remember what I said, it was only one sentence, but Pinky smiled and talked to me, I do remember that.
A few summers later, my parents did the unthinkable. They enrolled me in a summer camp. I was looking forward to unlimited stretches of unscheduled time, frittering away my summer days, but my parents had other ideas. I was cruelly forced to walk to the park near my house every morning for two whole weeks to participate in arts and crafts, sing-alongs, cookouts, and nature hikes.
On my first day of camp, I sat, sullen and morose, in the pavilion waiting for the teenage counselors to show up and describe the tortures they had planned for us that day. My heart leapt when I saw Pinky was one of the counselors! I was happy to sing all 20 verses of “Sippin’ Cider Through a Straw” if Pinky was leading us.
My parents were amazed when I bounded out of bed at the crack of dawn the second day, anxious to begin day camp. I got to spend 14 mornings with my hero and my happiness knew no bounds.
I lost track of Pinky for a while after that summer. She was in high school and I was still in elementary school so there were not too many opportunities for our paths to cross.
A few years later a friend asked me if I had heard about Pinky. “No,” I replied, “What about her?” My friend cupped her hand to her mouth and whispered in my ear, “She’s pregnant!”
We lived in a small town and news traveled fast. Pinky and her boyfriend were in trouble. In those days, unwed pregnant girls had three choices: marry the baby’s father, disappear for a few months and put the baby up for adoption, or risk an illegal and possibly dangerous abortion.
Pinky picked none of the above.
Out conservative little town was aghast. A very pregnant Pinky showed up at the community pool with her boyfriend. They were sighted at the root beer stand. She didn’t hide her face in shame, she actually had the temerity to look happy.
Rumors were that Pinky thought someday she might marry her boyfriend but she wanted to graduate from high school first. Her demeanor, which I so admired, didn’t change in the least.
I wish Pinky’s story had a happy ending. I wish I could tell you that she lived happily ever after, that she married her boyfriend or didn’t, and that she and her baby thrived against all odds, but I can’t. Pinky died in childbirth. So did her baby.
The death of a teenager and her baby, of course, is a tragedy. There is still, however, a lesson to learn from this incredibly sad story, a lesson about shame and how to overcome it. Vanquishing shame came naturally to Pinky.
Shame, you see, only survives when we allow it to get a foothold in our psyches and our lives. It depends on us believing that we have committed an offense so heinous, so atrocious, so monstrous, that it is unforgivable and we deserve to be shunned. Shame needs to isolate its victim to thrive.
Buying into someone else’s pronounced judgment is needed for shame to have power. If we have enough holy self-confidence and trust in ourselves, shame cannot get purchase in our lives. Our courage must come from within (I believe it’s a gift from a higher power), not from others’ approval.
Oh, I understand why shame is necessary. It’s a powerful mechanism to keep people in line. Shame helps promote adherence to social norms. I have done some things I am ashamed of, and let me tell you, I will never do them again. Shame can be excruciating.
I am not talking about the mild, necessary forms of shame that allow society to function, the kind of shame that comes from telling a child “No!” so that she does not hurt herself, for example. I am talking about the toxic, gossipy, judgemental form of shame. The sadistic kind that inflicts lifelong pain on its victim.
This kind of shame is on the decline, and I say “Good riddance!”
We all have our heroes whom we look up to. They help us learn how to live our lives. They have traits we want to emulate, they teach us how to be better people.
Pinky was first my hero because she was fast and I wanted to be fast. Then Pinky was my hero because she was confident and I wanted confidence. Finally, Pinky was my hero because she was a small-town girl who had the courage and the power to stand up to shame. What an important legacy she left behind.
I am linking up with Running on the Fly and Confessions of a Mother Runner for their Weekly Rundown, Loopy Laura for Global Blogging, Random-osity for The Good, The Random, The Fun, Anita Ojeda for Inspire Me Monday, My Random Musings for Anything Goes, Denyse Whelan Blogs for Life This Week, and Esme Salon for Senior Salon.