Redefining Our Scarlet Letters

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Many of us are defined by the hurts we have experienced.  Truly, how we interact today, the anxieties we have, are often a product of something in our past, injustice or injury, that has warped our perceptions.  

For many years of my life, I felt unloveable.  

I had gotten off to a bad start in the romantic realm.  After some failed efforts, stinging rejections, my confidence fell off a cliff, I would self-sabotage even when I had chances and spiraled even further into fear and doubt.  With every “not interested” answer came increased feelings of shame and the stigma of being someone not good enough for even a first date. 

I still apologize, sometimes, or actually more all the time, when asking to have dinner with a woman.

Why?

Well, not because I’m a terrible person.  I’ve always been a good friend and respectful of boundaries.  I have much to offer even in terms of platonic relationships and have proven myself in this regard over and over again.  But still, because of the value others have assigned to me, I look at myself as possibly being a burden to the person I’m asking and that hesitancy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because it makes the person being asked uncomfortable.

If you see yourself as being worthless it shouldn’t be a big surprise when other people agree.

Breaking free of these cycles can feel impossible when stuck in them.  The most frustrating advice I’ve ever received was “be confident” as if I was simply choosing to see myself as garbage for no reason whatsoever.  I mean, I had been confident enough to express interest, even overcome the oppression of my social anxieties, only to be swatted down one more time by young women who had their eyes set on 5′-10″ or over.

Of course my plight, as a shy person on the shorter end of male stature, was not at all helped by the conservative Mennonite culture that had been overcome by purity culture teachings.  Young people had it drilled into them that dating that didn’t lead to marriage equated to defilement.  So, if you didn’t have the superficial tools, there was really no means of building a relationship or mutual respect that could lead to a deeper commitment.

The Letters We Are Forced To Wear

The Scarlet Letter, a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1850, is set in the 1600s, in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, and follows a woman, named Hester Prynne, who—through an out of wedlock pregnancy—was found guilty of adultery and is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” for her sin.  It contrasts her plight to that of the child’s father, the town’s minister, whom she protects with her silence and lives in constant fear of being exposed for his concealed sin.

Like Hester, some of us wear our shortcomings more visibly than others.  Those who obviously lack something according to the prevailing social standard, whether exposed to public scorn and ridicule or simply excluded from institutions and driven to the margins, are forced to deal with feelings of humiliation.  Of course, that’s not to say that those who appear to be outwardly pure and undefiled are free of pain, those with less visible faults often live with a tremendous fear of being discovered and guilt. 

We all want to be accepted and yet have those letters to wear.  It could be that we’re typecasted, “oh, that’s George, always big talker!”  We have heard the labels, the declarations, “she’s a flirt” or “he’s desperate,” and sometimes it is hard to know if it is that person or the group making that reality what it is.  It is not all completely negative, it could be “they’re meant to be” or any statement that builds an expectation, but it certainly can keep a person confined and limits potential. 

Once you fill a particular role, in the minds of the group, it is often difficult to break beyond it. 

For example, my biggest fear, when I took a job driving truck, was that I would be branded a “truck driver” and thus not eligible for other work.  My concerns were fulfilled, years later, when I talked to a business owner friend about my desire to get off the road and they offered that maybe I could drive a truck for them.  

These kinds of things aren’t necessarily even spoken.  But we know there are those individuals or that don’t quite live up to the ideal of the group, who have a blemish visible or invisible, and are tolerated more than embraced.  In some ways, it would be better if our chests could be emblazoned with these symbols of shame, that we could be told exactly you get told by an eligible young woman “you’ll make a great husband someday” and yet nobody (including her) seems to want that greatness.

However, not all of this is imposed.  Some of this punishment, if not most of it, is self-inflicted.

Shamed No More

The most brilliant theme of The Scarlet Letter is that that this symbol of shame is transformed over the course of the novel.  This letter intended to stigmatize eventually becomes a badge of honor for the protagonist and something she wears willingly rather than because she must.  The letter “A” because of Hester’s diligent work, her charity, and listening to those lower social status, comes to mean “able” or “angel” as the story progresses.  She, for her proven virtue, becomes well-respected as humble and wise.

My own life journey, with the investment of love and care of a few, has begun to take that turn as well.  

I have begun to realize that my romantic failures were a reflection of a broken courtship culture and not my own lacking.  Because of the drip drip drip of Charlotte’s confidence in me, I have become stronger.  Not only that, but as a result of my struggle, I also have deep compassion for those who suffer and a desire to free them from the bonds of their insecurities.  Now, even when snubbed, because I know who I am and don’t depend on this external definition of what I am for security, I barely care.  It is on them, not me.  I know I’m a good friend and focus my effort on those who appreciate what I offer.

The reality is that I’ve become a different person.  I behave differently than I did when ruled by my anxieties and thus have become more attractive.

No, that doesn’t make what others did to push a person down a dead-end road any more right.  The love of Christ should compel us to invest in the salvation of others and especially to help those who want to be helped.  Things like slavery and denial of rights to people on the basis of outward appearance certainly do hurt and hinder.  And yet, there’s also a way to live beyond our typecasting. to not be confined by the expectations of others, and transcend our circumstances.

For me, there was never that final triumph nor day of reckoning with those who hurt me.  My hopes were shattered.  My identity crushed.  Those who caused my torment continued along their merry way and probably not with a second thought of how their attitudes impacted me.  They never did listen to me when I tried to escape from the box they had put me in.  But, nonetheless, I did emerge.  

The Scarlet Letters others forced us to wear may remain emblazoned on our chest.  However, we do not need to accept the meaning others have created for the symbol.  In the novel, Hester’s daughter, Pearl, became upset when her mother didn’t wear the letter.  For Pearl, the letter represented something other than shame.  It represented her loving mother, not sin.  That was a seed and very likely helped Hester to see her value beyond the opinions of the judgmental townsfolk.  And, eventually, what Hester became changed the meaning of the symbol even for those around her.

Our Perfection Is Not Purity

One of the inspirations for writing this blog was a conversation about matters of sexuality and shame.  My contention that the suffering of sexual abuse victims is a product of social expectations, as much as it is about the violation itself, and would be far less painful if we put less weight on perfection in terms of being ‘pure’ in a physical manner.

That’s where the shame comes in.  It comes from this idea that by being physically violated, or even touched consentingly by another person, we have somehow become worth less as a person than we were prior.  Of course, this is nonsense.  Our value does not come from physical purity, a person who was raped is no less beautiful or virtuous even if she does now feel differently about themselves as result.  It is this, this change in belief about oneself, that lingers long after the assault and is the real cause of suffering.  We are conditioned to see those who have been through this as damaged or defiled.

And that’s not to say that the assault does not do real lasting harm beyond what is physical either. No, rather that a rape survivor is going to be re-traumatized hearing a sermon about saving yourself for marriage. It is going to add to their fears of being disadvantaged and may actually stigmatize them when they really should be loved and treasured. That’s what purity culture does, it heaps shame on those who themselves may have done nothing wrong and often forgives those who should be held accountable.

While holding sexual abusers accountable, like we would anyone who takes what isn’t theirs to take, maybe we should also take on this idea that someone is forever tainted because of sexual intercourse and therefore a perpetual victim?

It isn’t the abusers that define the worth of a person as being their virginity nor is it the abuser who assigns the value to what happened.  No, we do that.  And one of the reasons why sexual abuse is so painful for those who were raised in a purity culture is because they are convinced that their own value is somehow decreased because of something that happened to them.

Jesus, even in dealing with those who had willfully sinned sexually, was completely gentle. 

Why? 

Well, it is because Jesus valued the individual for more than their physical ‘purity’ and past behavior.  Yes, he told the woman at the well, “go and sin no more,” but he did that for her sake.  Her lifestyle was not good for her and, unlike the proud religious elites who can admit no wrong, she was already humble enough to know her own shortcomings and want the change.

So, if Jesus could forgive those who sinned of their own volition, why should those who were violated by the sin of another feel as if they are somehow damaged goods?

If we actually believe that our righteousness comes from being clothed in Christ, made perfect in him, then why do we place so much value on the physical and the past?

To be clothed in Christ means that our negative experiences can be redefined.  No longer should the sins of the past (our own or by others) define who we are.  Instead, we are new creatures.  No, these things we have gone through are not removed, yet they can be redeemed and no longer a burden of shame that we carry, no longer a cause for self-pity or self-loathing, because our perfection does not come from our own abilities.  Our purity comes from the inside, through spiritual transformation, and no longer by the reputation others give us or regrets we have.

The Symbolism of the Cross

When Jesus was stripped naked, his flesh cruelly shredded by scourgings, battered and bruised, finally mocked under a sign “king of the Jews” while he suffered unimaginable anguish, the whole process was intended to humiliate and shame. 

He did not deserve the mistreatment nor was it a pleasant experience.  It was the sin of others that put him there.  It was a cross and a horrendous image of despair and death.  There nothing worthy of celebration in that.  But even this, intended to destroy him, could not.

Most of us, put through similar abuse, may curse God or at the very least we would not be in the mood to forgive those who torment us. 

Jesus, by contrast, did not let the circumstances define his character.  What they did to him was not a reflection of him nor could it be to his shame.  And, most importantly, they could not keep him in the grave as much as they tried.

As a result, the cross, this symbol of their hatred and abuse, has now become something we can look to for healing.  It is in the cross of Christ that we can see our worth as being more than what the crowd yells, more even than our broken physical body, and to have faith in God’s perfect justice.

Those ensnared in the world of sin and death, whether victims of abuse, self-declared advocates for victims or the abuser, cannot accept the message of the cross.  It is foolishness to them.  They are slaves of their twisted passions, prisoners of the past and bound to their own reasonings. And, for the victims who harbor grievance, their answer to being mistreated is always the same as what they feel was done to them. They want to take the marker of shame off of themselves and place it on those who harmed them.

But the message of the cross is that even shame itself can be defeated by the grace of God. Those clothed in His righteousness no longer have need to rank above their peers, no longer live for the acceptance of other people, and live for something altogether different from what many others strive for. No, rather than shrink in fear or fall into self-pity, they see their cross as something that is purifying, as the proving ground of their faith, and opportunity to serve.

If something as awful as the cross can be redefined to become a story of salvation, those letters we wear can also be changed in meaning and redeemed. We can be the Hester, in our own story, the one who proved that her character was about more than that one act those many years ago. In the end she was the better person, for what she went through, than those who had looked at her in judgment.

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