Elsa is five and my precocious granddaughter. We were sitting on the couch looking at two eagles soar in circles over an unsuspecting prey. We were both captivated—or so I thought—by the undulations of the wind and the effortless flight of grandeur. Instead, Elsa put her hand on my shoulder as if she were asking a stranger for the time. “Papa, can I ask you something?” “Of course, honey. What do you want to ask?” She replied, “Papa, do you know that you have a very big nose?”
I was startled, not with the fact or even the question, but with the delicacy in which she asked. “Yes, honey, I am aware that my proboscis is highly ponderable.” (If you are going to mess with a bright five-year-old, then, like playing poker, you need to know when to raise the linguistic stakes.)
She didn’t smile or raise an eyebrow as she usually does when I send a word screeching over the plate at 92 miles per hour. She had a look of tender concern. “Papa, does your nose ever make you sad?”
Her question did far more than startle me—it took my breath away.
“Elsa, I am most willing to answer your question. But before I do so I want to ask you where the question comes from—what compels you to wonder about how Papa feels about his large nose? Do you want me to go first or do you want to answer Papa’s question first?” She pointed to me.
I told her the story of Danny the Nose. I am aware that children’s stories need to be age-appropriate and sensitive to what they can bear. I am also aware that we have attempted to make childhood an idyllic recreation of Eden where children are spared the dark vicissitudes of life until they can metabolize those stories with maturity and savoir-faire. It wasn’t always that way. Bruno Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, argues that fairy tales are gruesome and terrifying and were written for children to address their fears through stories that put words to their inchoate terror. If you have never read the true Grimm’s Fairy Tales of what the wolf does with Grandma, then you don’t have a category for truly understanding Harvey Weinstein. I digress.
I told Elsa about the day in second grade when, at recess, a group of the most popular kids surrounded me and began chanting, “Danny’s nose is bigger than a hose.” I set the stage in describing the girls and the boys and how they linked hands and danced around me, singing the ditty with jubilant glee. Even as I told the story, I could feel two things happen: My heart felt the tug to hide, to disappear. I didn’t want to be me. Second, I felt the sangfroid and the bitter joy I experienced when, after four or five rounds of repetition, I clenched my fist and smashed the face of the biggest kid in the chorus. Somehow, I had learned at a younger year that if you are going to take on bullies, pick the largest. Tag the one who can hurt you the most and draw just enough blood; even if you lose and get beat to a pulp, he will not forget that you were crazy enough to take him on.
I decided that portion of the story could be abridged and told Elsa that I ran out of the circle and knocked one of the kids down as I did so.
I am 65, and those haunting words echoed from 58 years ago. I am still haunted by shame. Shame is like a barnacle that can die, but its glue holds you to the host. It doesn’t get shed by a brush of the hand or by countless experiences that decode the original exposure with layers of success. Shame barnacles and demands that you engage your heart, or it will take your heart. There are two important things to remember about shame: It is the primary weapon of our enemies, and our darkest enemy. No one escapes the assault of a sneer, a disdainful roll of the eyes. Shame pierces as we feel belittled and exposed as foolish, weak, or undesirable. It is the means by which we divide class, race, sexuality, ethnicity, politics, gender, and status. Those who are above shut the gate behind those who are different. The fence is made up of impenetrable contempt, and it separates us from others and eventually from ourselves.
Second, shame sears us with a brand that coheres us with others who bear the same mark. Bikers hang out with bikers. Surfer dudes hand-gesture with their kind. Elites recognize one another by their syntax and grammar. Our tribes are formed around common suffering and a commitment to stand against those who are perceived to be our foe.
A common enemy makes us friends, but our loyalty is thin because it is founded on hating those who opposes us, in an attempt to mitigate the shame the binds us. What was thrown at us as a slur becomes our slogan. “Slut” is now an approbation. “Queer” is a proud self-reference. We take cover in the contempt thrown at us from those who are above us. Common enemies do not make more dear friends—only love binds the heart to goodness.
The suffering servant in the book of Isaiah addresses how we are meant to engage the shame that binds us. He says:
5 The Sovereign Lord has spoken to me,
and I have listened.
I have not rebelled or turned away.
6 I offered my back to those who beat me
and my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard.
I did not hide my face
from mockery and spitting.
7 Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
I will not be disgraced.
Therefore, I have set my face like a stone,
determined to do his will.
And I know that I will not be put to shame. (Isaiah 50)
The war against shame is not fought or won by military might or will. We don’t rise above shame by refusing to be wounded by words; instead, we need help. The only antidote to shame is the word and touch of someone who delights in us. We need an alliance of love, one that knows our shame and suffering and refuses to look away, and offers the kindness of God instead of pity or mere sympathy.
Back to Elsa—the day weaved play, rest, a 30-minute “screen time” (not approved by Elsa’s mom), and more conversation. Toward the end of our time, Elsa came to sit in my lap and put her hand on my cheek and looked into my eyes: “Papa, kids on my playground make fun of me too. Sometimes. Not always.” It was apparent there was nothing to be asked or pursued. She needed alignment, not interaction. She saw my sad eyes that are also fierce and playful. I tickled her, and she grabbed me tight and we began a wrestling game we call “playing tiger.” It didn’t last long.
She looked again in my eyes. This time she put her hand on my nose and said, “Papa, I love your big nose.” She slipped her arm around me and gave me a child’s version of a bear hug.
That night as I prayed before falling into a languid sleep, I heard Jesus ask me: “Will you let me touch your nose? Will you let me bless your face like Elsa?” The answer should have been, “Oh, yes, Jesus.” It wasn’t. Our shame often becomes a part of our identity that we hold with some degree of pride as a form of resistance against any repeat exposure. I felt disgust when I heard Jesus ask to touch my face. My face is what it is—I’ll never be viewed as handsome, but I am fine with it. Drop it.
Our resolve to go it alone, to do it our way, is often a refusal to let him heal our shame. His eyes didn’t turn from my disgust. He refused to be kowtowed by my indifference. He simply asked again, “May I bless you? May I touch you as you let Elsa bless you?”
I said yes. It felt like hot coals rather than soft touch. It didn’t take away all the mockery or hurt in one fell swoop, nor did it magically resolve all that needs to be healed. But I can’t deny the tears that fell felt kind. If I can let my granddaughter be part of my healing, why would I not allow Jesus, who has had his beard plucked and his face soiled, tenderly touch my nose?