Sunday Shaming by Alison Downie


On a recent Friday, I learned that the 43 year old husband of someone I went to graduate school with, parent of four young children, died suddenly. Though I had been out of touch with my grad school friend for some years, I felt deeply for her loss, her unexpected plunge into single parenting, the way her life and the lives of her children would forever be shaped by this grievous tragedy.

I carried this family in my heart as I drove to my weekly Sunday visit with one of my adult sons, who lives about 75 miles from me. At this time, disabled by mental illness, he lives in an AA recovery house, surviving on Supplemental Security Income of $740.00/month and SNAP food allotments. Now 27, he dropped out of college after one semester, has never held a job for more than a month, and has been hospitalized three times for psychiatric care.

I usually enjoy our weekly visits, during which we sit at a coffee shop or do an errand. But I never know how he will be doing. When he is doing poorly, my own tendency to depression means that being present as best I can, even for just a few hours, to his deep suffering may utterly deplete me for the rest of the day or several days following.

On this particular Sunday, I happened to drive past a non-denominational church in the small college town where I live. It rents space on the main street, in an old movie theater. On this day, a group of enthusiastic church goers gathered on the sidewalk, advertising the service about to begin with handmade posters. They appeared to be mostly young, and I imagined they were probably students at the university where I teach.  I glanced their way, wondering if I would recognize a student from one of my classes.

A young man I did not recognize leaned toward the curb as I passed, aiming his poster at me. It read, “SMILE! It’s Sunday!”

I felt slapped in the face, stunned, and then . . .  enraged.

Though I drove on in steely silence, I wanted to slam on the brakes, storm into that cluster of shiny happy young people and throw down a Molotov cocktail of sudden death, mental illness, tragedy, and suffering of all kinds into their church street party: “NO! I will NOT smile because it’s Sunday. And who are you to tell me I should? Who are you to imply that if I do not smile, I somehow don’t measure up to your understanding of what faith or salvation is?”

Rage boiled within me for miles and miles, churning over the shame these young people tossed around in an insular, and therefore, arrogant obliviousness.

I imagine that they understood their signs to be godly evangelization, friendly invitations to their church service, or, at the least, innocuous advertisement. I imagine that they meant no harm and were probably encouraged into and praised by older members of their group for this enthusiastic “witness”.

I could have been one of them in my evangelical twenties. Thankfully, I was too shy and socially awkward to “witness” or “evangelize,” but I was trained to believe I was neglecting my duty, since, of course, our religious group had the answers that all others needed.

How I wish I had had the courage to pull to the curb, leave my fury in the car, and explain how the command to smile affected me.

Could any of them have heard me?

Unless I muster the courage to confront those who shame others by dogmatic commands and proclamations of certainty, masked as religious virtue, I’ll never know.

In a classroom, in my professional life, I’m perhaps hyper-vigilant in preventing potentially shaming exchanges. Student feedback tells me my Religious Studies classes are safe spaces. Yet I keep myself safe by operating only out of my intellect, employing analysis and critique in the third person.

In the classroom or while writing an article, I know how to keep myself safe. I patrol very clear boundaries. And over several decades, I have developed effective strategies for replenishing myself when shame overtakes me in situations beyond my power to orchestrate.

In that Sunday smile poster, all the smug, self-righteous, condemning religiosity which formed me in shame as I learned to talk, walk, and never break a rule, assaulted me once again, as Alison, not Dr. Downie. I wish I could imagine talking to that group without my professor-shield. Volunteering to walk right into shame, to walk right into a crowd pronouncing that I am religiously inadequate, has, so far, exceeded my abilities.

I hope that one day, perhaps even in the coming New Year, I will have the courage and strength to walk squarely into a poisonous cloud of shame, to risk being vulnerable, perhaps to teach more by how I live as Alison than how I structure classes as Dr. Downie.

 

Alison Downie, Ph.D. is Associate Professor in the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her academic interests include ecofeminist theologies, disability theology, and religious life writing.

 

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Categories: Academy, Evangelicalism, General, Grief, religion

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23 replies

  1. A very touching article, indeed

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  2. I so feel for you, here. This is the difference between unthinking dogmatism and what we all come to know eventually – that life can be bruising, traumatising and damn hard sometimes. I wonder how those young people’s shiny faith will cope when these things happen in their own lives, as they surely will?

    Adult faith says ” I don’t know why these things happen, I’m angry, I’ve had enough – why is God doing/allowing this?” Childish faith says “If I keep all the rules, nothing bad will ever happen to me.”

    I also feel for you in the ongoing heartache you have with your son – there’s nothing like your child’s pain to drain away all the strength from us.

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    • Thank you for your kind response. I’m glad I was able to communicate something of this struggle. There’s so much for me to unpack in encounters like the one I wrote about–complex dynamics of power and vulnerability, claims to faith and goodness, on and on!

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  3. I can relate to what you are saying, having gone through a similar experience with my daughter’s mental illness and the subsequent depression I experienced from it. I was involved in one of those religious groups growing up and for my own sanity had to get out of it because of that whole mentality of not being allowed to question, think, or use my own voice to express myself. Thanks for expressing yourself in this powerful post.

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  4. You have written so eloquently for so many of us who absorbed that shame and who have managed to survive by retreating into our intellect. Thank you for your vulnerability and sharing this encounter. Sigh! It is very familiar to me.

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  5. I’ve been having an email conversation with a friend who lives across the country (I’m on the West Coast, she’s a bit inland from the East Coast) about the standard-brand religions and how at least one of them tends to try to force itself on you. Given the background you gave in your post, I can see how the “Smile it’s Sunday” boy would annoy you. My friend and are also highly annoyed by Evangelicals (especially) that seem to have no respect for anyone else and tend to shove their faith at you. My friend and I have no reason to go out on Sunday, whereas you have very good reason to go out. I think you’re being a wonderful mother to visit your son every week and a fine teacher to establish your classes as safe spaces. Thanks for sharing with us. Live your life in both your head and your heart. Brava!

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    • Beverly thank you for taking the time to comment. How I wish this was not a familiar experience for so many, but it is good to hear from those who recognize it.

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    • I can read but can’t always follow instructions! Sorry I responded to another reader under your comment, Barbara. Thank you for your encouragement.

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  6. Thank you for sharing your story, Alison. I have a reaction too, when I’m accosted by the “Smile…” crowd. What would happen, I wonder, if I wanted to smile from Monday til Saturday? Would my face fall off? Is the One we call “God” hanging out with us only on Sundays?

    I think it is a sign of spiritual maturity when we leave behind all the rules that are supposed to “make us holy”, to enter into the grown up reality of living in love and compassion with others in pain.

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  7. SMILE – I too feel rage whenever I see this stupid sign. How dare they, I scream silently. How dare they. I too was once totally silenced by shame – as a child, as a woman – as a mother – but I began to grow out of that misery when I became a professor, therapist and writer. Out of the three the writer has been most effective in taking shame and returning it to the sender. Not that I don’t have my moments. I am severely dyslexic with numbers and directions – can’t back a car up or deal with traffic and this stuff does reduce me to that state of “oh why can’t I be different?” NORMAL – as if that was a plus.

    Shame, the great silencer of women. I believe that by speaking out so courageously you are breaking the pattern even though it doesn’t feel that way…. and in the meantime my heart goes out to you.

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    • Thank you Sara. Yes to “breaking the pattern even though it doesn’t feel that way” and for the guidance in this memorable phrase: “taking shame and returning it to the sender.” These phrases are going to stay with me.

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  8. I don’t know that I agree, Dr. Downie. Shame is a toxic substance and you are under no obligation to wade into it. Creating a safe space in your classroom may be all the shame antidote you are responsible for.

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    • I appreciate the caution and respectful push back about responsibility, Linda. I am not much of a risk taker, so if I do decide to try out any wading in, I would only do so after a lot of careful consideration and emotional preparation. I couldn’t agree more about the toxic nature of shame. Thank you for commenting.

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      • I would actually argue people telling you to ‘smile’ is actually a form of verbal abuse.

        I would recommend a book ‘verbal abuse – how to recognise it and how to respond’ by Patricia Evan’s.

        If you did challenge them, it might end up with them focusing on why you are not smiling as opposed to anything they’ve done wrong.

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  9. I am going to look up this book–thanks Helen. I have certainly had encounters that went exactly the way you suggested it might go. I think that’s why it’s so risky to consider addressing such messages head on. I am very interested in the relationship (continuum?) of shame and abuse. Thanks for commenting

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    • I understand a lady called Brenee Brown has also done a lot of work on the issue of shame. I haven’t managed to look too much into her work myself, as yet.

      Also, if nothing else, lighting a candle, with the intention of dissipating the energy of shame seems to help me.

      I am riddled with shame, so don’t listen to a word I say – its always easier to give advice than to take one’s own.

      I don’t know if you’re watching it, but I’m interested at the moment, with the dynamics going on in the Big Brother house with Ashley and Genuine (I live in the UK). His shameful behaviour that ends up with her feeling bad and acquiescing to him.

      I didn’t actually see the episode where they fell out, but up until then, they had had a gentle, seemingly respectful innocent ‘courtship’. He then apparently made a crude sexual gesture towards her, which she rightly took offense to (this view was backed up by at least one other female guest).

      The next morning, he totally blanked her and ignored her. She ended up missing the good times that they had had, feeling very uncomfortable (shamed) knowing that she did not have the option to distance herself.

      She was the one who ended up initiating contact again with him, whereby he laughingly ridiculed her view that he had done anything crude (gaslighting) and that it was more to do with her sensitivity and her past. He justified his ignoring her, saying he does not like conflict (which sounds reasonable – who does?) and it is often best to leave people to realise for themselves what they have done wrong, to which she agreed and it was not long before she was in his bed – which is presumably what he wanted all along and which she had resisted up until then. Wow!

      Going back to the issue of SMILE, if you did choose to confront these people, perhaps something along the lines of “you’re trying to control me” or “you’re trying to tell me what to do”. They will invariably say that is not what they are doing. Perhaps a written note that says this, so they are left with the feedback, but you are not drawn into their stuff. I personally have found that people that are controlling (who’s to say Im not one myself – I believe anyone that confronts is likely to be told they are aggressive/controlling) are usually very aggressive people underneath and are fully aware that they are causing people discomfort but feel that the means justifies the end.

      I had an incident before christmas where I was talking to a shop assistant about child abuse in the church. He and I had spoken before. Suddenly, we were accosted by an angry woman, basically saying that our conversation was “negative” and that she had felt like walking out. She then proceeded to threaten to write a letter of complaint about the shop assistant, for not monitoring this type of conversation, saying there is a time and place for these types of conversation and she did not expect to come into a christian bookshop and listen to such stuff.

      She tried very hard to shame both of us, but it did not work on me. I spoke for a bit, trying to question her outlook ie when is a good time to talk about these things, was she interested in me giving her an article about this issue? and then I let her speak to the shop assistant, who apologised to her – presumably because he was concerned about the fact that she had said he might lose his job. She then proceeded to point her finger at me, aggressively, saying “and you, don’t you dare say I don’t care about child abuse”. I did not enter into a discussion, I merely said twice, “do not point your finger at me please”.

      She did not succeed in shaming me, but she did succeed in scaring me. Not at the time – but when I left the shop, I began to worry that I might bump into her again and she might have back up, or that she might follow me to the bus stop and continue to harangue me in public. Personally, I preferred the option to being scared in this situation than shamed.

      Interesting that I even feel shame at the prospect of posting this. I’ve spoken too much. I’ve diverted from the point. What if others agree with this woman’s perspective that there is a “time and place” and that discussing child abuse in a christian shop is not to be done and that it is “negative”. Interesting…..also, that if someone is too accommodating to me. Agreeing with me that I have done nothing wrong etc can actually make me feel even worse shamewise than if someone is critical. Can’t win!

      I think I’m going to take my own advice and light a candle and have a cup of tea…..

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  10. I know firsthand what is is like to be raised in an atmosphere that uses shame in order to enforce social norms. I admire your desire to confront individuals and groups who are engaging in shaming behaviors. Sadly, I suspect many of the people in these types of groups have a ton of cognitive defenses at the ready for anyone who tries to burst their bubble of “happiness.” At the same time, in my entire 20+ years within a fundamentalist background, I recall very few if any dissenting voices, and I think my decision to walk away from that lifestyle would have been a lot easier if I had had the direct experience of someone besides myself confronting the shaming behaviors that occurred.

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    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Suzanne. You have expressed the heart of what I wrestle with, I think. Is it possible to engage but be able to withstand and not be destroyed by the devastating shame? And if so, might that stance open an escape hatch, so to speak, for those as yet trapped in that closed and rigid world? I’m glad you were able to walk away from that toxic lifestyle.

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      • Great questions to ponder, Alison! I think it takes a lot of inner work to separate our view of ourselves from how others see us. Ultimately the shame we feel is the shame we direct towards ourselves. Others can offer it to us in terms of judgment and rebukes, but we have to accept it –which can happen automatically and unconsciously–as deserved before it can affect us. So much easier to describe the process than to live it out in real life!

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