How We Use Outrage to Mask Our Shame

In a cartoon in The New Yorker this week, a patient sits expectantly on the table as his doctor glances down at the charts. “Here’s your problem,” the physician says, “it looks like you’re paying attention to what’s going on.”

It doesn’t matter if you hate Trump or think he hung the moon, sit on a pew or slouch on a barstool, send cash to the NRA or have a Coexist bumper sticker on your Prius. Pay attention. Keep your eyes open. And think deeply about what it’s like to be a human being in today’s world. Do that enough and it’s well nigh impossible not to feel ill.

Paying Attention to Anger

Here’s what I’ve been paying attention to: anger and outrage. Angry political, religious, and moral rants on my social media feed. An angry woman at my local convenience store totally losing it over a minor mistake by the cashier. An angry man gunning down five employees of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis.

Outrage, outrage, everywhere, with oceans of poison to drink.

I’m paying attention to our culture of outrage. But I suspect we’ve misnamed it. We’ve identified the symptom rather than one of the underlying problems. Our issue isn’t merely outrage.

@@The well from which much of our anger is drawn flows from an aquifer of shame.@@

The Aquifer of Shame

The commonly accepted wisdom is that we feel guilt over what we’ve done and we experience shame over who we are. If guilt is the blemish on our face then shame is the cancer in our heart. It’s deeper, harder to dig out.

And it’s often much more dangerous.

Brené Brown points out that “shame leaves us feeling worthless, paralyzed and ineffective.”[i] Shame is dehumanizing. Shame pulls out a stopper in the bottom of our souls, out of which drains all our God-given dignity. It leaves a vast void within us.

But no one can live that way. If nature abhors a vacuum, then humans abhor an empty soul. It must be filled with something. And that “something” is often anger.

Anger empowers, especially the self-righteous variety. As Brown points out, it’s “an emotion of potency and authority.” We can turn the tables and shift our shame outward by expressing outrage about someone else, something else, any damn thing as long as it’s not us who’s the target. As psychologist Mary Lamia writes, “Relocating one’s own shame in another person is a typical self-protective maneuver,” especially for narcissists.[ii]

@@We shame and blame others as a strategy for warring against the internal shame and self-blame dragging its claws across the floor of our souls.@@

A Cauldron of Anger

I know this all too well: that was my life for many years. I was a walking, talking, bubbling cauldron of anger. I plotted scenarios of revenge in which I gave my enemies what (I thought) they had coming. I lifted a middle finger towards the God who (again, I thought) had taken everything precious in my life and dashed it against the ground. I lashed out at strangers, punished my body with exercise, lived and breathed a self-righteous wrath against whoever and whatever was against me. Doctors prescribed an antidepressant that was designed to help control my anger. In my case, it didn’t help. The cauldron still boiled over.

What I needed was not a pill to medicate my anger.
What I needed was love to drive away my shame.

And I finally found that love—or, rather, it found me—in a place that was, ironically, rife with violence and anger.

The Global Human

Love found me in a man who was the object of shaming. He was stripped naked, whipped to within an inch of his life, nailed to a beam of wood, and displayed for public mockery by both the government and the religious authorities. It was an attempt to dehumanize him. To rip away every vestige of human dignity. To reduce him down to a bloody piece of meat, devoid of honor, devoid of hope, devoid of life.

And what did he do?
He spoke tender words about his mother.
He prayed for those who were doing this horrific thing to him.
And, in the end, he did the unspeakable:
he forgave them all.

It didn’t happen suddenly, but gradually that man, my God-brother, Jesus the Christ, pulled me up onto that cross of shame.

In fact, he does it for all of us. As he once said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself,” (John 12:32). All of us who are full of shame, full of anger, full of emptiness, he draws to himself because in himself is present all humanity. He is the global human, the one man in whom all people are present.

@@That man is our one hope in a culture of outrage, a society drunk with shame, in which we wound each other in the delusion of self-healing.@@

He says:
*You are not worthless. You are my heart’s desire.
*You are not a piece of trash. You are the treasure of my soul.
*You are not created for anger. You are made for me, for peace, for wholeness.

Every particle of shame he absorbes into himself. And there it dies. Every poisonous drop of our anger he swallows. And when he unites us to himself, he fills us with a new heart, a new spirit, a new way of being human in this world.

If there is an answer to the violence, the anger, the shame suffused through our world, it’s in this man who, in his last breath, exhaled an absolution for us all.


[i] I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from What Will People Think? to I Am Enough, p. 213.