Don't fall into the hell of shamefulness
Mind Moves: Why do we banish ourselves from Eden? writes Tony Bates.
Perhaps it was seeing the countryside dressed in its Sunday best that made me think of Eden. That story about two iconic lovers who had it all: nature on their doorstep; local animals who were like their pets; their very own God who stopped by each evening to hang out with them.
I know. You’re thinking, “This is so Old Testament. Spare me.” But stay with me. In that story, we see what happens when self-awareness meets shame; and how what we hide and disown always comes back to bite us.
I know you were fed a different version in school: how Adam and Eve weren’t actual real people; how their story is some kind of metaphor for the fall of Mankind. Those interpretations were probably fine when you were a kid; but you’re grown up now and it’s time you made up your own mind.
Let’s go back to the original drama. Some voice spoke in one of these lover’s ears – or maybe it was just a thought that occurred to them one day as they were making love beside some idyllic stream: “It’s great that we have each other, that we wake to bliss every day and have a God who caters to our every possible need – but is this all there is?”
There it was, that human itch to upgrade what we have, to look for more. Surely this is not a bad thing? I mean, isn’t there something noble about human beings wanting to improve their lot? But what if getting more means betraying a friend, or taking something that isn’t ours to take? The momentary thrill they felt – when they stole what they might well have been given had they simply asked – was soon eclipsed by an uncomfortable sense of guilt. It was as if they suddenly caught their reflection in a mirror and saw their humanity for the bumbling, frail thing that it was.
We are all capable of deceiving ourselves and hurting people we love. And these are just our minor-league stupidities. Listening to the news this morning about the widespread racism in sports, I squirmed at the ugliness that can so easily take hold of and poison the human heart. I understood Adam’s impulse to go hide in the bushes and pretend it wasn’t happening.
When God dropped by that evening, he couldn’t find them anywhere. He called out and Adam answered: “We’re in the bushes, Lord. We’re hiding, because our private parts are on show.” They hated themselves for what they had seen in their own natures. They were ashamed and couldn’t bear the gaze of another, even when that “other” was probably the best friend they would ever have.
I don’t think it was God who banished them. I imagine Him as a fairly broad-minded Being with a bigger heart than that. No, they banished themselves. They walked away in shame, taking their unprocessed shadows with them. To Syria, to Nagasaki, to Auschwitz, and into chambers of power where people make decisions every day to go after what they want, whatever the cost.
Imagine if the story had unfolded in a different way. If those demoralised lovers had emerged from the bushes and ’fessed up to what they had done. Their moment of truth might have become a moment of transformation.
Peel back the veil on the human heart and we are a mass of contradictions. I have sat with many people following some painful crisis in their lives, when they looked courageously at their own behaviour and acknowledged the harm they had done; moments when they allowed truth to burn through their self-deception. And out of that painful encounter with themselves, they began to live more responsibly and more compassionately.
Early yesterday morning, I was with a wise old monk who is a very dear friend. We sat on a bench in the garden of Bolton Abbey. The sun had just come up and the countryside looked stunning. I made some reference to Eden, to which he replied: “I live out the drama every single day in my own heart. I feel love calling me out of myself, but I hide in shame because I feel painfully aware of shortcomings in myself. And yet I know what I need to do is to bring what is hidden into the light.”
Tony Bates is the founding director of Headstrong – the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, www.headstrong.ie.
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times. Headstrong would like to thank the Irish Times for their ongoing support.