The Blind Men & The Elephant

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Long ago and far away, a king summoned several blind men and gave each the same assignment: to describe what an elephant is like.  Before they could do so, each had to learn for themselves what an elephant was.  Because they were blind, they could not simply look on the creature and describe it.  Instead, they had to feel for themselves.

And so, each blind man was brought, one by one, to the same elephant.  And each experienced for themselves the physical attributes of that elephant.  Afterwards, the blind men returned to share their findings in the presence of the other blind men and the king.

“An elephant is like a fan”, reported the first blind man, who had felt the elephant’s ear.

“No, an elephant is like a column”, said the man who explored the elephant’s leg.

The others heatedly disagreed with the both of the former men: “An elephant is like a rope”, “An elephant is like a wall”, “An elephant is like a branch”, proclaimed the blind men who had felt the tail, belly and trunk.

Because of their conflicting reports, a heated argument arose between the men.  Each was convinced that they knew what an elephant was.  After all, each had experienced it for themselves.  Clearly, everyone else was wrong.

Eventually, the king interrupted their debate and taught the men that each had provided an accurate description of a part of an elephant.  But what each had experienced was only a portion of what an elephant was.

All of them were right.  But, those who disputed the claims of the other blind men were also wrong.

The truth was not either/or.  It was both/and.  An elephant was larger and more complex than any of them knew, and their could better understand what an elephant was by combining and considering all their experiences.

As a couple therapist, I have the opportunity to share the sacred space that is a therapy room with couples trying to wade through and work through disconnection, conflict, confusion and hurt.  At times they will bring up disagreements in which both are convinced that they are correct and their partner is wrong.  In these instances, the question often comes to my mind, “What part of the elephant is this person touching?”

I have found that I generally can see a few parts of the figurative elephant that both clients are blind to.  I am also aware that they are both privy to parts of the elephant that I am never exposed to in our 50-minute sessions.  And despite both members of that couple being ever-present players in their relationships, they each have parts of the elephant that they are likewise exclusively aware of or blinded to.  And this blindness can often lead to disagreements and confusion.

Interestingly, the solution to the presenting problem is often far less significant than the ability of partners to hear, consider and be accepting of the other’s experience.  If someone can ask why they think an elephant is like a fan, rather than insisting more loudly that it is like a column, then it becomes easier to realize that both of their experiences can be true, valid, meaningful and complementary.

At times, it is important to be aware that there may be a bigger elephant in the room than the one we see.  This can be true in relationships, as well as in controversial conversations about politics or social issues.  There may be a need to simply step back and ask: “What part of the elephant is this other person touching?  And am I willing to listen and allow them to help me see and feel it too?”  In doing so, it magnifies the possibility that both individuals will come away with a better ability to connect with and understand each other, and with a greater understanding of truth.

Fear & Hiding: Lessons from Adam & Eve, Part Two

(For context, be sure to read Fear & Hiding: Lessons from Adam & Eve, Part One)

When Adam & Eve found themselves naked and ashamed they initially responded in two ways:

  • They tried to cover themselves with aprons of fig leaves (Genesis 3:7)
  • They attempted to hide (Genesis 3:8,10)

In attempting to cover themselves, Adam & Eve sought to hide their shame and exposure. But it wasn’t efig leavesnough. It was a counterfeit attempt at covering. Because it wasn’t enough, they next resorted to hiding. In hiding, they did two things: They distanced themselves from God and they put other things between them and God in their efforts to avoid being seen in their nakedness/sin.  I believe that this outlines a pattern that plays out today.

Consider the following. The natural man’s initial responses to sin often follow the same pattern:

  • Try to cover self: justification, blame, rationalization
  • Attempt to hide: denial, lying, avoidance

One of my personal definitions of shame is “the felt need to hide”. It is human nature to want to feel safe. This is true physically and this is true emotionally. Sin causes individuals to fear judgement, rejection, disapproval or disconnection. And so it is natural to hide. Hiding can take many forms.

We try to hide from our own consciences, and we try to hide from others.

Many justify their actions in an attempt to cover up any wrong that was committed. Many cast blame on others or on circumstances in order to try to release themselves of being exposed and risking the disapproval of others. And many find ways to rationalize in order convince either themselves or others that they did no sin. And while these strategies may help to alleviate some cognitive dissonance, it does not lead to healing, repentance or emotional safety.

In attempts to hide our mistakes and weaknesses from others, many will deny any wrongdoing, lie overtly, withhold full or partial truths, or even physically hide by avoiding certain places or relationships in which it feels vulnerable to be exposed. Some people even hide in plain sight by projecting attitudes and facial expressions that suggest something that is untrue or inauthentic.

And doing these things don’t make a person bad. They reveal that the effects of the fall, and natural man reactions to the effects of exposure to the fall, are embedded in us. But, as was the case with Adam and Eve, these attempts at hiding our nakedness are ultimately ineffective.

Luckily, or rather, mercifully, there was a third way that Adam and Even ultimately responded with, and which is available to us as well:

  • They allowed Christ to cover them with coats of skins (Genesis 3:21)

adam-eve-altar-39689-printSimilarly, we can allow Christ to cover us as we apply the Atonement through repentance. Even if we have tried to cover ourselves, and have attempted to hide, or even if we have spent years in hiding, if we respond the Savior’s invitation to come unto Him, His is prepared to receive us, heal us, and cover us. He is our Savior, Redeemer and Advocate. Each of those titles and roles is powerful. He can save us from our sin, and our hurts, and our oppressors. He can redeem us from our sins. And He can advocate for us:

“Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—Saying, Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they man come unto me and have everlasting life (D&C 45:3-5).”

When we feel guilty or ashamed, our natural man instinct is to fear and to hide.

However, if we can instead turn to the Savior, He will help us to repent and He will cover us through His Atonement. If, in those moments of shame, we can remember to choose guilt, and to allow it to remind us of our divinity and our opportunity to improve, it can invite us to turn to the Savior and be covered. Like Adam and Eve, it is important that we learn that rather than try to hide and cover our mistakes and vulnerabilities from God, we can approach God in our vulnerabilities and He will cover us.

Fear & Hiding: Lessons from Adam & Eve, Part One

I love the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve. I have learned countless lessons from studying what took place in the Garden of Eden. But perhaps the lesson that has been richest and most meaningful to me at this season of my life is a lesson regarding shame.

The first reference to shame is found in Genesis 2:25: “And they were not ashamed”. The first account of adan y evaexperiencing shame is found in the following chapter.

We read in Genesis that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were tempted by the serpent and partook of the forbidden fruit. After eating the fruit, we learn that they became aware of their nakedness, which instilled a sense of fear and they felt a need to hide: “And [Adam] said, I heard thy voice in the garden and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself (Genesis 3:10).”

The Bible Dictionary provides additional insight, stating:

“The first effect of Adam’s sin was that he was afraid (Gen 3:10). Sin destroys that feeling of confidence God’s child should feel in a loving Father and produces instead a feeling of shame and guilt.”

One of the first effects of being exposed to the effects of a broken law was to feel fearful and ashamed.

The story of the Fall contains considerable symbolism that can provide additional meaning to the events in the Garden, and to our experience in mortality. Consider the significance of the symbols of nakedness and clothing.

Nakedness

When I think of how Adam and Eve were not ashamed of their nakedness before partaking of the fruit, but were ashamed afterwards, I wonder if perhaps it is because of what their exposure represented.

The prophet Jacob mentioned nakedness figuratively, or perhaps spiritually, when he spoke of a day of judgment saying “we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness…”(2 Nephi 9:14). Here he pairs nakedness with feelings of guilt and uncleanness.

One interpretation of the symbolism of nakedness is that it represents being exposed to the effects disobedience and of a fallen world.  It can represent being vulnerable to painful consequences.

Partaking of the forbidden fruit was a transgression and a sin. It was an action in opposition to God’s commandment. Accordingly, after partaking of the fruit, Adam and Eve were now subject to the consequences of sin and of a broken law. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were exposed to God’s all-seeing eye, but they were not seen to be guilty of any sin. Thus they felt no shame.

After the Fall, they were exposed to the effects of their transgression, and to the effects of a fallen world. They would be seen in their sin. And they would have to stand accountable for the consequences of those sins.  Thus their desire to hide and cover themselves.

Before the Fall, though naked, Adam and Eve were not exposed to the effects of the broken law. After the Fall, they had a need to be covered from the consequences of the Fall.

Clothing

References to clothing are common in the scriptures. For example, the prophet Isaiah wrote “God…hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness”. Here clothing is paired with salvation and righteousness. It is also referred to as a covering.

adam_and_eveAs it relates to the role of clothing in the account of the Fall, there is reason to believe that the article of clothing, a coat of skins, and its mention in the Genesis account are intentional and instructive.

Elder Carlos Asay commented on this, teaching, “Prior to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were clad in sacred clothing. We read: “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them” (Gen 3:21) They received this clothing in a context of instruction on the Atonement, sacrifice, repentance, and forgiveness (see Moses 5:5-8).”

He suggests that the clothing is intended to be instructive regarding the Atonement, sacrifice, repentance, and forgiveness. How so?

We’ve touched briefly on how clothing can be a symbol of salvation and righteousness. It is also meaningful to ponder on the relationship between covering as it relates to being exposed. But it might be most instructive to consider what Adam and Eve were clothed with in the garden and its origins. We read that they were clothed in “coats of skins”. Where did those coats come from? It would be reasonable to assume that they weren’t purchased at a store, and that they didn’t appear out of no where.

Most likely, to obtain the skins from which the coats were made, an animal had to die. atonement-what-can-the-scripturesAnd since we understand that the Garden of Eden was a place where the lamb and lion could lie together and where animals were not predatory, it seems safe to assume that an innocent animal’s life was offered up as a sacrifice in order to provide a covering for Adam and Eve. The Old Testament says much about the sacrifice of animals. And we know that these sacrifices were in similitude of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Though sinless, He took upon Him the sins of the world and offered himself a sacrifice for sin.

It is very probable that an innocent animal was sacrificed, as a type of Christ, to cover Adam and Eve from their exposure to the effects of their sins and to heal their shame. Truly, it is the Atonement of Christ that covers us from the eternal consequences of sin when we repent.

With these symbols in mind, we will next explore why and how we hide, and how we can turn to Christ to be covered when we feel exposed, ashamed or vulnerable:

https://waxingstrong.wordpress.com/2016/06/10/fear-hiding-less…dam-eve-part-two/

Defining and Distinguishing Guilt & Shame

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Growing up, I used the words “guilt” and “shame” interchangeably. I assumed that they meant the same thing. I used both words to describe a feeling that accompanied acting in a way that was inconsistent with how I felt that I should have acted. I have since learned that those two terms, while related, represent two distinct concepts and experiences. Understanding their difference has made a world of difference in how I respond to my regular shortcomings and missteps in life.

In the book Uncovering Shame, authors Harper & Hoopes offer insight into distinguishing between guilt and shame. They wrote:

“Shame is an emotion in response to a negative evaluation of one’s self, whereas guilt is an evaluation of behavior. When people recognize that their behavior has violated some standard that has meaning to them, they feel guilty for having done it. Guilt is emotionally healthy and a necessary process of living with others.”

I’d like to break down the three sentences above and provide some additional insight.

Shame is an emotion in response to a negative evaluation of one’s self, whereas guilt is an evaluation of behavior.

This first sentence notes the key difference between shame and guilt. Allow me to elaborate on that distinction, as it is a little bit subtle. Shame is how you feel about yourself; guilt is how you feel about your behavior. To state it slightly differently: Shame is about who you are whereas guilt is about what you did. Shame says, “I feel bad because I am bad”. Guilt says, “I feel badly because of something I did (or didn’t do)”. There is an enormous difference between feeling bad and feeling badly. Feeling badly about something you do leads to a desire to change or repair the error. Feeling bad as a person leads to discouragement and justifies inaction and stuckness. Ultimately, guilt can lead to hope, whereas shame can lead to despair.

Dr. Brene Brown, a shame researcher, has studied, spoken and written extensively about shame. In her descriptions of shame, she has identified shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” She has also noted, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” This feelings of being flawed, unworthy, broken and not good enough leads to thinking that we can’t change and that we don’t deserve for things to be better.

Shame attempts to prevent healing and progress. It tries to convince people to lose hope and give up. And it invites people to hide parts of themselves and to avoid the people they care most about. Because a person in a shame state feels unworthy, they want to hide that part of themselves from others. They believe that others would also view them unworthily and reject them. They fear disconnection. And so, ironically, they disconnect. They disconnect from their potential, from people who love them, and from spiritual sources of strength. Self-imposed disconnection and abdicating agentive power is the danger of consistently evaluating one’s self rather than one’s behavior and living in a shamed state.

When people recognize that their behavior has violated some standard that has meaning to them, they feel guilty for having done it.

Everyone has standards. When I think of what the word standard means, I think of a ruler. A ruler is a reference ruler-clipart-bcyx4rqcLfor measurement. When objects are measured against it, the ruler provides a standardized way of identifying its length.  Similarly, our actions are often measured against the moral code and standards that we have learned and assumed in our lives

Standards for behavior and morality can be learned at home, in families, in social groups, from religions, and through media. Standards tend to be based on values, and different people value different things. For this reason, certain groups may be more inclined towards guilt than others.  Two individuals can even engage in the same behavior and one feel guilty and the other not.  A perfectionist may feel guilty after failing at something they attempted, while another person may feel grateful that their failure taught them something new.  There are some people who may feel extreme guilt for  consuming certain unhealthy substances or watching movies with certain ratings, whereas others would not see anything wrong with such behaviors and thus feel no guilt because of their assumed moral code and how they were raised.

Because many people assume standards that are unnecessary or unhealthy, not all guilt is good.  However, when a standard is appropriate, it can be a healthy measure that encourages morality.  For example, many people value the standard: Be kind.  Alignment to such standards leads to satisfaction, fulfillment, order, safety, healthy relationships and a more functional society.  Deviance from such standards invites appropriate guilt which invites realigning to those standards that are helpful and productive.

Guilt is emotionally healthy and a necessary process of living with others.

I love appropriate guilt (not to be confused with excessive or inappropriate guilt, shame or other emotional counterfeits). Guilt plays an important role. I think of the role of healthy guilt as being comparable to the function of the body’s capacity to discern pain.

electric-stove-burner-types-1.1-800x800Consider the example of placing your hand on a hot stove. If you were to put your hand on that hot surface unknowingly, you would immediately feel pain and instinctively and immediately remove your hand from the hot surface. Pain, a protective warning system, would both signal to your brain to remove your hand from a damaging stimuli and teach you to not make that same mistake in the future. It would protect you in the moment, and provide learning that would help protect you from similar threats that could occur in the future.

Similarly, guilt can play the role of a protective warning system that guards our consciences. If we act in a way that is inconsistent with a standard that has meaning to us, then guilt reminds us of the standard and of our desires for behaviors aligned with that standard. Guilt can remind us of our goodness (assuming that our standards are healthy standards that reflect our goodness) and can also invite us to change and act in a way in which we feel more peace and satisfaction.

From a religious perspective, it can be said that guilt invites us to repent. It makes us aware of our missteps, reminds us of who we want to be, and makes us aware that change is possible through Jesus Christ.

Healthy guilt, rooted in reasonable standards, invites us to act differently in a way that leads to growth.  It invites healing relationships and improving ourselves.  Ultimately, true guilt, when correctly interpreted, invites us to turn to Christ and be healed through Him.