“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
– Ernest Hemingway
The way I’ve always told the story, my first romantic faux pas came in the sixth grade. It was early fall, before new friendships had begun to overtake the holdovers from elementary school. A year earlier, a French girl named Flourianne had moved into White Bear Lake and was deposited into my class. She sat near the window on the far side of the room. That was convenient for me since I could always pretend I was looking out the window when she caught me staring. That happened a lot. I don’t remember much about her except she had enormous brown eyes and her wavy hair was a half-shade lighter than her eyes. She made odd faces – she would bite her lip, say, or open half her mouth and puff out her cheek like a chipmunk. I mimicked those faces under the impeccable assumption that being more like her would make her like me. I wonder if I had the presence of mind to relax my face when she caught me looking.
But that was fifth grade. The next fall, I was sitting alone in what must have been communications class. (It might seem irrelevant, but it’s odd to me that I can’t place what class that was. We had seven periods per day, and it wasn’t history, math, science, gym, or “industrial technology” or whatever euphemism we used for shop class.) Whatever class it was, we were given time to work on a project, and when I looked up from my work a girl named Crystal was hovering over me. She was smiling. “Hi Steve.”
“Hi?” I answered skeptically. (I always answer skeptically.)
“You know my friend Flourianne?” I looked over at her. She was staring at us and, of course, biting her lip. “She likes you. Do you want to be her boyfriend?”
Somehow in that moment I devised a sort of convoluted logic that, looking back, seems reserved for online political debates. Rather than thinking “I like her, she likes me, let’s do this,” I thought, “They found out I like her! How did they find that out?! Now they want to shame me and make fun of me for it. I can’t let them.” So I apologized and shook my head.
It’s only recently occurred to me that impulse – to acknowledge an attraction and then be ashamed of it – has been with me ever since. (Perhaps it runs deeper. Maybe I am similarly ashamed of any ambition, any desire that requires an action and a vulnerability. For example, whenever someone has asked what I want to do, what sort of job I want to have, I feel that same pang of compunction.) If I get to know a woman and find her attractive and get a sense of potential compatibility, there is an unreflective voice telling me, “You must never let her know.”
The psychologist Joseph Burgo writes extensively about shame. Shame of this kind is what he would call “basic shame.” “Upon birth,” he says, “we human beings are intensely vulnerable and reliant upon our mothers and fathers to help us grow.” He contends that our development is contingent on how they respond to our needs as we grow, and we are born with an intuitive set of expectations about what those responses should be. “(Donald) Winnicott referred to this genetic inheritance as a ‘blueprint for normality.’” When our parents diverge from that blueprint, we have an innate sense that our development has gone awry. “Instead of instilling a sense of intrinsic beauty, an abusive or traumatic environment leaves the infant with a sense of internal defect and ugliness.” Burgo finishes with a gut-punch of a cold read: “At heart, the experience of basic shame, often unconscious, feels like inner ugliness, the conviction that if others were truly to ‘see’ us, they’d recoil in scorn or disgust.”
That would be a deeply discouraging place to stay, like a country that is always overcast but never rains. I have known people who have found themselves in such places and purchased emotional real estate; I intend to only be passing through. In “The Gifts of Imperfection,” Brene Brown says that shame damages “the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.” Perhaps I have no control over that primary urge, that self-assigned axiom telling me to feel ashamed for wanting. But I can stop and see the overwhelming evidence that I am loved and that I am worthy of love. That people who have truly seen me haven’t yet recoiled in scorn or disgust. That the people who care haven’t abandoned me. Shame is not an inevitable conclusion. It is an artifact from a society that died out long ago. All that’s left is to put it behind glass and marvel at how far we’ve come.