I love to read about other people’s struggles, especially if they are very different from my own and if they have overcome something unimaginable to me. Whether it’s the personal memoir of an oppressed woman in the Middle East or wise sentiments from a man born with no limbs or a documentary about a wealthy hoarder in New York.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s dramatic, life-altering challenges, though those tend to be the ones that grab my attention, I glean just as much wisdom from writers like Brené Brown and Ann Lamott in their depictions of more common human ailments, such as shame and chemical addiction.
Back when I taught 7th grade, I was the only weirdo English teacher who chose “Life’s Biggest Challenge” as my students’ major narrative essay topic. While other teachers were assigning jovial topics like “What I Did Over Summer Break” in which kids could write about al the fun they had riding Big Thunder Mountain at Disney, I was “that” teacher asking 12-year-olds to think about their deepest struggles in life. And how they overcame them or how they continued to face them. Granted, preteens these days do face incredible challenges, and there were maybe 2 or 3 kids each year who were able to articulate them and put them into any kind of big-picture perspective in a concise essay. But for the most part, I read handfuls of narratives about overcoming skateboarding or gymnastics stunts that the students had attempted to master all of their lives.
As a teacher, I knew certain inconspicuous facts about specific kids, like who’s parents were recently divorced, who struggled with hidden disabilities such as dyslexia or who’s mom had just died of cancer. I always assumed students would choose these glaringly-obvious challenges for their essays, but most of these kids were the ones who came to me saying they had no idea what to write about. Even when I told them their papers would be completely confidential, the majority still chose to write about sports and hobbies.
And I can understand why. Until starting our blog, about a decade after graduating from college my twin sister and I did not choose to write or even talk about the major life challenge of having a degenerative eye condition. I remember my sister even telling me once how she was assigned a similar challenge essay in high school and how she wrote a fictitious essay about how she used to be fat as a child and how she overcame her weight problem. Now to understand the extremely comical part about her choosing this topic, you have to envision my sister at age 15 when she wrote this…..all 93 pounds of her at the time. Skinny as a rail, and all genetics, no eating disorders involved. She said that her teacher commented “Wow, Jenelle….I would never have guessed you used to struggle with your weight!” Apparently, she got all her material for the essay from a chubby little girl she babysat.
I have no room to criticize, however, as I remember an 8th grade essay I wrote about being in the hospital at the age of 5 and how I received a special stuffed clown named Chuckles. This was, in fact, a true story, but it did not actually happen to me; my sister was the rightful owner of the green and white checkered Chuckles
So what keeps us from sharing our real stories?
I think most of the time it’s shame.
Shame-researcher, author and speaker, Brené Brown, who’s TED talk on the topic of shame went viral, describes it this way: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. It’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection.”
One would think that after writing extensively about vision loss on my sister and I’s blog, that I’m over any shame related to vision. But shame sneaks up like influenza, barely a sniffle and then writhing with body aches.
Just the other day I was reading, “Bread and Wine”, by one of my favorite writers, Shauna Niequist, and I found myself having shame envy. That’s not even a real term, but that’s the closest I can come to naming it. She was talking about the shame she has felt over food and her body and feeling hungry. And I found myself wishing that I could write about food-related shame instead of vision challenges despite the fact that I have never once felt shame over a partaking in a decadent brownie nor over a BLT dripping with bacon grease. But I found myself thinking irrational thoughts about how more people could relate to her shame than mine and how her struggle sounded a lot cooler than mine.
But that’s what deep shame continues to do, even after you’ve spent a lot of time and hard work scraping off its layers. It makes you think that no one can relate with you. It makes you feel shameful even about your shame.
At some point, it is necessary to choose our challenges, to really claim them as our own. Shame tells us that giving them attention makes them grow bigger and gives them more power, but I have realized that it is in the naming that they shrink. Like a physical wound, it is only when you give a laceration the attention it needs, leaning close enough to clean it with peroxide and wrap it in poultice, that it finally loses its sting and can heal.