We often judge others as incompetent, stupid or even delusional. Whatever the reason, they become unlovable in our world and appear to live in a different world than the one which we inhabit. We may even say they are “bad” people.
We also judge ourselves as ignorant or incapable, usually because we failed to achieve a certain goal or meet a standard. We then become unworthy of receiving love from others. Hello? Do you see how evaluation is the machine that builds walls of non-cooperation, enmity and insecurity among us constantly?
Negative evaluation is the original sin that decorates our world with toxic shame. It’s toxic shame that leads me into a corner where I am unable to ask for help, admit my ignorance, accept myself just as I am. For all of us, it poisons our perception of who we are, why we are here, and who we are with. It robs us of vitality, serenity and joy. Evaluation is a necessary function of rational task analysis, and absolutely useless for understanding the context, the map, for all that we do. It makes no sense to use the same narrow frame of reference, of comparing specific performance to arbitrarily expected results, for generating a total sum of our identity. It is false to assume that because we make mistakes that we are a mistake.
For most of my life I’ve been haunted by the feeling that I was a mistake. I thought I didn’t belong here on this planet. I have literally been homeless in my heart to some degree, seeking for home, security and comfort outside of myself in many ways that were ultimately ineffective and very painful. My rage of rebellion against this injustice to my very being has made it possible for me to see that same rage in other people and to understand what may appear to be senseless violence.
I received emotional and physical abuse in my childhood that taught me two things: other people were untrustworthy and I had no right to exist. I experienced the covert terror of nuclear weapons and the cold war of the 1950’s and 60’s as reminders of those same lessons — distrust and annihilation — expanded into a global pattern of thinking. Today’s pandemic of refugees and homeless families is an intensified continuation of the same abuse.
We are now beginning to see not only how traumatic it is to be without a physical shelter that one can call home, but also how multiple types of trauma from domestic violence to war, from loss of income to loss of health, contribute to a sense of not belonging anywhere or to anyone, not having a home. Social services are unprepared to cope with these cascading global environmental and economic crises.
There are rapidly growing numbers of men, women and children who are lonely, shunned and ostracized, who have been systematically tortured and abused by cultural norms, institutions, and laws. Those norms are the external manifestation of a war between our heads and our hearts. Our hearts are longing to belong, our heads have put ourselves and everyone else on the bottom of the waiting list. This conflict is literally a ticking time bomb that threatens to destroy us all if we refuse to walk through this pain together.
When I look back, it was people like myself, people who also felt homeless, people who didn’t have the answers to fix me, who simply offered me their companionship and partnership, who said “let’s walk through this pain together to get to the other side.” They offered me community, a tribe, a place to belong, to fit in. They listened to my story without comment. They encouraged me to keep talking, crying and allowing feelings to surface that were buried deep inside my hurt, clenched fists. They demonstrated unconditional love and allowed me the time and space to relax enough to accept it. I can be healed, not by other people fulfilling my need for connection, but by them showing me how to open up to the connections that are all around me like stars in the sky, just waiting for me to open my eyes to see them.
What I really need, and what everyone really needs, is to be heard, to be understood, and to be accepted just as we are. We don’t need to be judged or punished by ourselves or anyone else to look, sound, or act better or worse than anyone. That kind of competition is based on a false perception of scarcity, that only a small, limited number of people are deserving of praise — are “perfect” or “great” — and that the rest of us are deeply flawed. No. We are all doing the best we can with what we have in each moment, moments that are most likely deeply constrained by a history of pain and loss.
Our history may be unchangeable, but the effects it has had upon us is definitely not permanent. I now know that “adverse childhood experiences” encouraged me to build the defense mechanisms that block my ability to connect with others. It is normal and natural to have self-defense instincts. However, a “fortress mentality” of paranoia and unbreachable force poised for attack becomes a prison from which we cannot escape and which makes it impossible to participate in a meaningful life of energy exchange. There is no joy. The illusion of life remains, but we are numb to experience and prone to despair. There were times in my life when I no longer wanted to go on living, and my desperation drove me to behaviors that were crazy and unhealthy. Life became a meaningless crashing through the jungle, harming myself and other people.
My history of toxic shame has belatedly taught me to look beyond my daily experience of ups and downs to the horizon of my entire life. My life story is not random. It has a thread of repeated mistakes and eventual learning that ties it together, and even ties it to the life stories of my parents, their parents, my children and their children. Knowing and understanding my own story has led me to self-forgiveness. I make mistakes, many mistakes, but I am not a mistake, and neither is anybody else.
“We can be forgiven if we change,” say many people who represent our culture of judgment and punishment, people who would force us to be different than we are. I say if we set the context within which we can we forgive ourselves — something that nobody else can do for us — we enable ourselves to change, we loosen the bonds of our past. When we relax our critical, blaming mindset to allow for the possibility that we and everyone else are always doing the best we can with what we have in the moment, we also relax into the patience and willingness to work with others to solve problems, because they are so much like ourselves. Freed from the bog of comparative analysis, we discover everyone — including ourselves — has a truth and beauty of their own that defies logic.
This may sound huge, but it is not difficult, really. Interview somebody. Pretend you are an investigative reporter for the Daily Sun. When you shine the light of your full, non-critical attention upon someone else, you will see it reflected right back at you. “Oh, this person that I am interviewing is just like me!” The healing for us happens when we freely give the empathy — the welcome home — which we want to receive. If you are lonely, your best friend is another lonely person.
Just assume — just for a moment — that you have always done the best that you could, regardless of the results. When we act as if that forgiveness is already there, we have already received it. If we want a sense of belonging, then the question becomes “How can I experiment with — literally, create the experience of — a sense of belonging, inclusion and connection for others and myself simultaneously?”
I am very excited to see that more and more people are now volunteering to walk together in a truly beautiful way through the pain of both specific and generalized homelessness. Hope is arising from simple acts of conversation that connect us with curiosity and respect, conversations without judgment or evaluation. Your history of victimization, slavery and imprisonment is the same as my history with different details. We are family, we belong to each other, this is home.
“Even after all this time
The Sun never says to the Earth,
‘You owe me.’
Look what happens
With a love like that,
It lights the whole sky.”