Despite all the healing work I’ve done on myself, a sense of inferiority clings to me and sometimes gets in the way. It is part of the legacy of toxic shame I have not completely shed, not to mention all the cultural messages we get about what it means to be successful.
You see, I do not come from prominent people … none arrived on the Mayflower … as far as I know, none fought in the Revolutionary War or the Civil War … none distinguished themselves in any way that I can find. My ancestors were simple people … farmers and laborers who probably fled war and famine for a better life.
Family Roots of Toxic Shame
My maternal great grandmother died when my grandfather was three. His father left him to be raised by his mother’s parents. Even though my Irish great grandfather seems to have dropped off the face of the earth, absent from genealogy records I’ve combed, he passed on a legacy of toxic shame and trauma to generations he would never know.
His son, my grandfather grew up to be a drinker, a womanizer, and a batterer. My mother and her siblings found it extremely painful to talk about their childhoods. At ten, I was aware of the scars in my mother, her mother and siblings and wished I could take away the pain and anger so we could be a happy family.
Family patterns are hard to break and little did I know, this legacy of toxic shame was being passed on to me. I, however, seemed to have been born with a mandate to break the cycle. After no luck in trying to change others, I finally learned the wisdom of changing myself.
Shifting Focus – Reaping Rewards
Once my focus shifted, resources to help me appeared. I worked hard and the attention I gave to self-healing shaped my professional life as well as my personal life. I found myself called to a ministry as a family therapist for those caught in the pain of addiction and an Imago Relationship Therapist for couples. However, it wasn’t until 1999, at the age of fifty-seven, when I had almost given up on my personal life, that I reaped rewards there, too.
I had finally developed the capacity to extend love to others. My finest hour came when my daughter gave birth in the most dire of circumstances to my first and only grandchild … the climax of the journey recounted in my memoir, A Long Awakening to Grace.
Even so, living with the consequences of early decisions is not easy. I sometimes wonder how life might have been different had I been born into a family with a different legacy.
In Good Company
And then, for Advent, my church chose the theme, “The Mothers of Jesus.” Mothers … in the plural. Not just Mary, but Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.
In my theological education, I skipped over Matthew’s recording of Jesus’ genealogy. I hadn’t noticed the references to five women dropped into his account of the twenty-eight generations of men from Abraham to Jesus. I hadn’t considered these elements in Jesus’ lineage … prostitution, lies, deceit, wickedness, depravity, mistreatment, abandonment, adultery, rape, murder.
As I listened to our adult forum class recounting Ruth’s life and to the sermon featuring Tamar, I chuckled to myself. I guess I’m in good company … as are most of us. There is brokenness in the best of families.
Did Jesus hang his head in shame about his lineage? No, in fact, he seemed to prefer hanging out with people just like them … the people who were on the bottom rungs of his culture … women, the poor, people with contagious diseases, tax collectors, and people from a hated ethnoreligious group (Samaritans). He challenges us to do the same.
Who angered him? Haughty and rigid religious aristocracy who held themselves as superior to those they supposedly served, putting tradition above people. They were quite troubled about his relationships with “sinners.”
He didn’t choose the religious elite as his closest confidants. In fact, he chose simple people — fishermen, a hated tax collector, and probably a political radical. He was patient and forgiving of them when they just didn’t get the radicalness of his ministry and message.
Jesus valued those with the qualities his mothers possessed … qualities so evident in the stories of their challenging lives … courage, trust, faith, steadfastness, faithfulness, loyalty, kindness, love, resilience, perseverance, persistence, overcoming suffering, refusing to be defined by their dire circumstances, and heroically leading lives of significance. He believed in his disciples even when they failed him.
My challenge … and perhaps yours … is to actualize within myself those qualities that Jesus valued … and to relate to others as Jesus did.
In the end, it all boils down to this:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. ~John 15:12
In the hustle and bustle of the Holiday season,
let us hold on to what really matters …
the birth of a LOVE the world had never known
and has yet to be fully realized within and among us all.