A while ago, I stopped by CVS after playing ultimate frisbee at school to pick up some mouthwash and some toiletries. It was just time to run some errands, no big deal. But as I was walking through the aisles by the pharmacy, I saw this guy – who looked to be around 23 or so – grab what seemed to be some over-the-counter medication and put it under his shirt, under his waistband in the back. And I walked by him and in my head I was like, WHOA. And then I thought to myself, maybe I go should let a CVS employee know? And then I looked around, and was like, where are the cameras????? But then I said to myself, wait, let’s go talk to him! Be brave, Sameer. You got this. And so I walked up and started talking to him.
And I said, “Hey, can I just buy that for you?”
And he looked at me in complete shock…and said…”Um…No, it’s okay. I will put it back. I don’t need it that bad. I’m sorry.”
Me: “Are you sure? I really don’t mind buying it for you. You can pay it forward sometime.”
Him: “No, it’s okay. I’ll put it back. I’m really sorry.”
Me: “Don’t you need it? Won’t you need it in the future?”
Him: “No, it’s fine. I don’t really need it.” And he apologized again.
Me: “It’s okay…I know how life can get. I’ve been there. Thanks.”
And then he went and put it back, and apologized to me one more time. And then he left.
And I just stood there in the aisle, wondering what just happened. All I remember thinking was that I really wanted him to keep his dignity. The fact that he apologized so much showed me that he was remorseful and just felt a lot of shame about it. And I just wanted to try to show him love. I should have asked him his name. I should have asked if he wanted to hang out. I got so sad afterwards. I just was like, God, nothing else matters except him…and I just want him to have hope. I just want him to have joy. Please take care of him and bless him and help him. My heart just ached for him and his situation. And maybe it’s not a big deal, maybe it was just like an impulse thing…but to me it seemed bigger than that. It seemed symptomatic of a bigger problem, I don’t know if it was related to meth production or an addiction, or what. I was just like, God, I can’t stand seeing people like this. Struggling. Please help him. If And I thought to myself that if I see him again, I will ask him to hang out. It was just a jarring experience and I am glad that it affected me because I want people’s sadnesses to affect me. I just want to care more.
I bring this up because I’ve been reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. As you may know, the book is about the powerful effects of shame in our life, and how to overcome them. Dr. Brown discusses how we overwhelmingly need love, connection, and belonging – because we are relational human beings – and how our fear of being rejected causes us to stiff-arm or run away from showing our vulnerabilities. In order to find freedom from the prison that shame keeps us locked in, we are to own our vulnerabilities, embrace self-compassion, and reach out to empathetic others. What is more, we are to choose to live an engaged life where we step out of the shadows, and embrace the risks and emotional exposure that come our way in every interaction.
The goal in all of this is wholehearted living: “engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging” (p10).
I would venture to say that the vast, vast majority of us don’t feel this way on a regular basis. And that is so awful to consider. We struggle mightily with self-worth and self-blame, and it completely undermines our ability to live life to the full. I have felt that feeling more than I would like to admit, but I have a tough time recognizing when I am being too hard on myself. When I see others mired in shame, though, I recognize clearly that they don’t deserve to be riding themselves into the ground. You’re probably the same way. We both know on an acutely visceral level when we have failed or fallen short to some standard. And it almost automatically affects our perceptions of our intrinsic value and worth. At that point, we’re already down on ourselves, and the last thing we need is for others to pile on top of that.
All of us struggle with shame on some level, and all of our stories are complicated and occur against a backdrop that seriously no one else can fully see or understand.
On a regular basis, life has shown me in very gripping and convicting ways that “there but for the grace of God, go I.” It would be easy for anyone to judge this person I met in CVS, but whatever he was dealing with was no worse or ugly or shameful or jacked up than anything I deal with, or have dealt with. Or anything you deal with, or have dealt with. All of us struggle with shame on some level, and all of our stories are complicated and occur against a backdrop that seriously no one else can fully see or understand. And that backdrop sometimes induces us to make wrong choices and consequently feel shame, which Dr. Brown vividly defines as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
That guy needed connection. I tried to connect with him and convey to him that I didn’t judge him for what he was doing. I just wanted to be there for him. I just wanted to pay for the product he was trying to steal if he couldn’t afford it. I just wanted to come through. I wanted him to know that there were others out there who would demonstrate love and care and kindness to him no matter what he did. I know that might sound way too magnanimous, but that was the truth and I believe that is what he needed at that moment.
And I think that is what we all need. Desperately, sometimes. You know what you feel shame about in your own life, and you know how it affects you and keeps you hedged in. It paralyzes you on some occasions, and suffocates you in other encounters. Same with me. If shame in our lives is a universal truth, and we all can agree that it is destructive, does it not demand that compassion should be universal as well? I mean, it seems so intuitive. But we just don’t see it displayed as often as it’s needed. And we definitely don’t feel it as often as we’d hope.
You know what you feel shame about in your own life, and you know how it affects you and keeps you hedged in. It paralyzes you on some occasions, and suffocates you in other encounters. Same with me.
I can’t control how other people act, and whether they are moved in the same way I am. But I’ve just been thinking this week that I really need to always do my part. And so whenever I feel the tendency rising up within me to criticize, ostracize, or otherwise judge someone else for ANY REASON, I just want to immediately remember how badly I need others to NOT do that to me. Ever. Because they don’t have a clue about what I’ve been through, or what I’m dealing with, or what my story is. Just like I don’t know theirs. Or yours. Compassion should be my first response, always. In every situation. It’s hard, and it’s not always natural, and I definitely mess up sometimes. But I pray He keeps sensitizing me to this truth so that I really get it, deep down in my heart. Because I know it’s right.