It’s difficult to apprehend the agony of divorce in all its facets unless you’ve been through it yourself. Divorce brings a variety of painful experiences that most of us taste at one time or another in our lives, only the divorced person experiences them all at once. One of those is shame.
Recently, a friend described a part of his divorce experience that highlights the facet of shame.
“When I would go to my son’s baseball games it felt like everyone knew that I had been rejected by my wife. She was always there, appearing not to have a care in the world, while I felt tainted. A combination of dread and panic filled my chest as I walked from the parking lot to the bleachers, like I was walking up naked. I’m sure that plenty of other people there were going through their own painful situations, but at the time I was convinced that I was radically different from everyone around me and that they were all conscious that one of the unclean had entered their midst. I felt like an outcast. There were parents I had known for years who didn’t acknowledge me. I’m sure they were just focused on their children, but it seemed to me as if they avoided even making eye-contact, as if doing so would infect them. While all the other parents joyfully watched their children play I sat squirming with discomfort. I dreaded my own child’s ballgames to the point that I didn’t even want to go, which added guilt to the whole miserable experience. It was agony.”
Consider some of the words he used – “rejected,” “tainted,” “naked,” “radically different,” “unclean,” “outcast,” “avoided,” “infect,” “dread.” This is the language of shame.
Ed Welch, in his recent book “Shame Interrupted” defines shame as “the deep sense that you are unacceptable because of something you did, something done to you, or something associated with you. You feel exposed and humiliated.”
You likely know someone in the midst of divorce who is experiencing the debilitating impact of deep shame right now. We are called to love them, but how do we love such a person wisely?
We could argue with their perceptions, but that won’t work. Shame will win the argument every time. Shame is tangible to the one who experiences it, and it’s impervious to logic. Our arguments will seem abstract. But don’t lose heart, this actually frees us from the pressure of having to know the right thing to say.
My friend was describing his experience from a distance. A few years had passed since those days and he was in a much better place. So I asked him what others had done that helped.
“They honored me. They invited me over to their house for dinner. They included me in their lives in concrete ways. They remembered me. Most had no idea what to say, but that didn’t matter. The fact that they came close and included me when I felt untouchable carried me through.”
The body of Christ is tailor-made for such a mission, but sadly, we often reinforce and compound shame by avoiding those in our midst involved in divorce. Some do this because of self-righteous judgment of divorced individuals, but I don’t think that’s always, or even often the case for most of us. Most of us just don’t know what to say, so we leave it to others more capable. But a few words, no matter how brilliant and biblical, aren’t what these friends need from us. At least not initially. Ask them to come over for dinner. Take them to lunch after church. Call them on the phone. Post on their Facebook page. Ask their advice. Seek them out and sit with them at church. Ask them to join your small group. Send a card. Follow-up. To love these friends wisely think “include, acknowledge, touch, honor, and value.”
Keep pursuing, even if your invitations aren’t accepted. Sometimes the pain of divorce makes public appearances seem unbearable. Don’t take it personally and know that your pursuit sends the message that shame is a liar in tangible ways.
“Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)
The possibilities for walking this out in concrete ways are endless. Get creative if you like, but showing up is good enough.