The Sticky Knot of Shame

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Andrea Cisneros ’10 M.Ed.

When my parents divorced, my brother Alex and I went to live with our dad. Though my mother was in the grips of alcoholism, Dad got us not because of a court decision, but because she let us go.

My adult brain understands Mom was in a mighty struggle with addiction and the consequences it wrought on our lives. I know relinquishing full custody was the best thing she could do for us (and I’ll never run out of glowing words for my father). But 7-year-old-me needed to make sense of this loss. The best explanation I could cobble together was that my mother didn’t want me, and it must have been because of something about me.

For years, I tamped down any bad feelings towards Mom. Eventually resentment and anger reemerged with vigor, intensifying rather than lessening the blame I’d put on myself. Around then, I also experienced a deep conversion and threw myself into a Catholic faith that had previously been at most a cultural presence. I don’t think this was a coincidence, but the story doesn’t end: “And then Jesus healed all my wounds. Tah-dah!” The effort to untangle the sticky knot of shame and sorrow has been a central feature of my Christian life.

Christ made it both possible and much harder to face the rupture between my mother and me. Because of Jesus and who he says I am, I couldn’t write myself off and thus let myself off the hook. I also couldn’t foist intractable fault onto Mom and be done with it. I knew Jesus called me to forgive, but I thought that meant “get over it” and berated myself for feeling hurt. Though I now bear my mother no grudge, I’ve been utterly unable to rebuild our relationship. For years, I asked Jesus to make me good enough to move on. I thought my failure to do so proved a fundamental hard-heartedness.

I know many live in a similar battle, yet each of us feels alone. Shame and sorrow are ferocious that way: latching onto something core, digging in, and distorting our image of ourselves and the world and even our God. Force of will can’t free us from this hold. It’s true that forgiveness is necessary for Mom and I to move forward, but moving forward doesn’t mean just moving on. Forgiveness isn’t partitioning off our sorrows with a tidy explanation. Rather, it demands facing the problem and owning its effects. A “Tah-dah!” resolution might dull hurts, but true forgiveness is a conversion greater in some ways than the one that brought me into the Church. I’m still far from what Jesus wants for me, but I’m learning to allow his love to subsume me.

Forgiving Mom requires me to see her as Jesus does and to embrace her human weaknesses, needs, and sorrows. Forgiving myself will require the same.