Do Not Be Ashamed of Your Shadows
Your journey through the darkness is also a journey into the light.
Shame often comes sweetly. Every memoirist I know, and every trauma survivor as well, knows the feeling of shame draped in concern.
“You shouldn’t dwell on negative things.”
“Your work would be more popular if it were more positive.”
“Writing about those experiences is taking a toll on you.”
“I’m worried you don’t know how to move on.”
If you, like me, come from a religious background in modern evangelical America, your portion of sweet shame may also come frosted with swirls of toxic positivity and spiritual bypassing.
“Jesus wouldn’t want you to bring that up.”
“Gossip is a sin.”
“Oh, it wasn’t that bad. I’ve gone to church for years and never experienced that.”
“Let’s talk about good things!”
The Worried Ones lay this sugared blanket over you, cooing and coaxing you into silence. They stick a saccharine lollypop in your mouth to shut you up. Sprinkle your hair with Let’s Be Grateful pastels. The Uncomfortable Ones set your candied self in the corner and announce they’re on a diet. They’ll come sneak a dig at you later, when no one’s looking.
Who are you beneath all that sugar-shame?
You’re a warrior who journeyed through the shadows and lived to tell the tale. And now your story makes those who’ve acclimated to the dim shadows (or enabled that darkness by pulling the curtains) want you to shut up. If you must write and share, make it about something else.
But your sweetness comes naturally; it doesn’t require candy-coating. It’s balanced and organic. Real. You’re growing, fibrous and rich and strong, nearing ripe maturity. Your bounty of wisdom will nourish, heal and empower…but only for those with a taste for truth. (more on that below)
A shadow is defined as the dark figure cast upon a surface by a body intercepting the rays from a source of light.
There are dark figures and bodies in our midst. And these dark figures cast dark shadows. We even have shadows within ourselves––aspects of our personality and behavior difficult to accept.
In evangelical Christianity, those shadowed aspects within are called sin and we need a savior to rid us of them.
When I was a kid growing up in a Southern Baptist megachurch (20k+ on the membership roster,) we focused on that salvation.
“He washed me white as snow.”
“What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
“How great thou art, that saved a wretch like me.”
When I became a Presbyterian fundamentalist, we had rules to help avoid sin. Salvation was more of a backup plan.
But in my entire religious experience, shadows within equated to shame, like dirty underwear stowed in the back of the closet. Shadows without––those external pastors, abusers, molesters, and misogynist patriarchs––those fear tactics, manipulations, purity and obedience cultures––all got a pass. You don’t air dirty laundry. If you must wash it, you do so in secret. Because to talk about it means threatening the narrative:
Jesus saves. Our sins are forgiven. That’s our story of salvation, the conception we have of our faith and of ourselves. Shadows were washed away. They’re so washed away, they don’t bear mentioning. Let’s focus on the good.
I come to it again: A shadow is defined as the dark figure cast upon a surface by a body intercepting the rays from a source of light. We can not have shadows without the light. In fact, a story of shadows is inherently a story of light.
What were you journeying towards?
I’ve recently completed my memoir. This manuscript was my twelfth draft and included three new chapters at the end that focused on my recovery from high-control religion (read: cult) and church-sanctioned domestic abuse. They are empowering chapters that chronicle the space between my harrowing escape and the whole-hearted life I embrace today. Writing them led to breakthrough.
I sometimes call my story “a real-life prequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.” I lived the reality we see our news headlines predict today. Christian Fundamentalists who believe in Dominion Theology (the teaching that Christians will take over the world and usher in the second-coming of Christ) have taken a strategic approach to running America the way they run their homes. How they rule their families matters to all of us now. Dominionists don’t believe in religious freedom for anyone but themselves. They’re not “live and let live.” And, we need to pay attention. We need survivors to speak up.
Mine is a dark story that contains both horror and heart. Mine is also a testament of light. The figures (both external and internal) that intercepted the light I journeyed towards cast dense, ghastly, tangled shadows I struggled to navigate. When my evangelical faith encouraged me to repress and deny them, I, not them, was the one nearly washed away. The shadows gained ground because the dark figures (and their enablers) prevailed to keep survivors quiet.
It was speaking up that led to freedom. It was telling on the shadows that dispelled their density.
Who gains when survivors are silent?
The answer, of course, is the perpetrators and those who benefit from them. QUIET means you’re not in the way. QUIET means convenient. QUIET means you’re pretty to look at, like a china doll laying on the bed, smiling in perpetuity, never threatening to scream.
Here’s the thing about stories with shadows. If you’ve survived a wilderness like that, and come out on the other side, you, my dear, are a fucking miracle. You kept going toward the light. You found your words. You prevailed. You screamed––and then softened. You healed. No one can tell a compelling story without doing her work, without pruning back the blame to discover the hoary root. To hold that root in your hands and turn it over, scraping off the inaccurate labels of sin, shame, and saccharine, to find the heart of love in the center. Because, dear fellow survivor, that is what you are: love. You are love and goodness and worthy and enough. You are strength and perseverance. You discovered the light and that took everything you had.
Take that love and plant it in new soil. It will grow fibrous, rich and strong until you notice one day it bears the fruit of wisdom. It’s wisdom you earned, too precious to ever feel ashamed of. Take yourself off that shelf. Your story is for those who crave truth.
Thanks for reading Dear Fellow, my love letter to survivors. Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work. Looking for my regular newsletter? Visit www.tialevings.com to sign up.