Academic Shame and the Honor that Really Matters

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

At some time, most of us have found ourselves in a new situation where we wanted to feel competent and get things right but were afraid of getting it wrong and feeling embarrassed in front of others.   Maybe it was starting a new job or going to a new school.  Maybe it was a parent or romantic interest whom we wanted to impress.  I’ve certainly felt that way many times in life. Most recently, I have moved to a new country and started a doctoral program.  In my new station in life, I’d rather appear as neither an ugly American nor an ignorant fish-out-of-water at the university.  But the reality is that I probably come across as one or the other or both from time to time.

Given my recent move, I was particularly struck by the following story from Mark Baker in “Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials.”  I’ve been slowly working my way through this book over several months, and providentially I came across this testimony of Baker’s experience of being a first year Ph.D student at the same time I had just started my own Ph.D studies.  As Baker points out near the end of his story, a lot of people can’t identify with studying for a Ph.D but but all of us have experienced shame at some point and tried to hide the feeling that we just don’t measure up to those around us. 

What do we do in those situations?   When we experience shame and embarrassment, where do we find hope?  Where do we look for honor?  Who are we trying to impress anyway? 

As you read the following story, give some thought to your own situation.  Where do you look for honor and recognition?  Whose approval are you looking for?

In 1992 I (Mark) transitioned from ministry in Honduras to doctoral studies at Duke University. To enter the world of a doctoral program at a major university is, like in many jobs and professions, to enter into a situation where one feels constant pressure to improve one’s status among the scholars of the field. Those who have already achieved their degrees seek status by giving papers at conferences and publishing books and articles. Other scholars measure them not only by how much they have published but also by which publishers and journals publish their work. Not yet at that level, graduate students hope that impressing a renowned professor with a great paper will help them move off the bottom rungs as they begin to climb the academic ladder to success. On a day-to-day basis they feel the pressure to impress others by comments they make in seminars. 

In my first days in graduate school I was not so much reaching for a higher rung on the ladder as trying to figure out how to demonstrate to others that I was even on the ladder. In a variety of ways I perceived myself as being at the bottom of the group of first-year students. I longed to show that I could speak intelligently about theology, but I lived in fear of saying something that would confirm what I already felt— I was not really in the same league as the other students. Usually the fear of shame won out and I sat quietly in seminars. 

One particular moment portrays well the way I felt and acted my first semester. It was midsemester and I had not said anything in one particular seminar. The professor mentioned something that reminded me of a certain theologian. Part of me wanted to seize this opportunity and demonstrate I was “well-read,” but my shame-driven habit of silence seemed to push a mute button. I said the name in a whisper, but the professor, perhaps reading my lips, repeated the name and affirmed the connection. 

In contrast to the seminar room the atmosphere at lunchtime in the student lounge was of course more relaxed. I talked with other students, but still there was a sense that I was hiding. At times I said some things as a way of covering up and at other times did not say things for fear of what they would think of me. 

Then one day in a seminar the guest speaker said something that so disturbed me that I spoke out before the image-protecting part of me could hit the mute button. It was not a statement that was calculated to impress anyone; I simply reacted. Everyone remained silent after I spoke. I immediately assumed that what I had said was so dumb that people did not even know how to respond. To make matters worse all the theology professors attended this seminar. I wanted to crawl under the table. In a moment someone made another comment and the discussion went off in another direction. 

After the seminar I went, not to the student lounge, but out into the parking lot— fleeing my shame. But I started praying. I thought about the cross and the extreme shame Jesus experienced. I continued praying with the confidence that God understood what I was feeling, and I sought to rest in God’s love for me. That allowed me to be compassionate to myself, but also to reflect honestly about my drive to impress others and hide my perceived weaknesses. Why was I feeling ashamed? Was my academic reputation a false idol? Those moments of prayer did not give me a permanent freedom from the pressures I felt. I was still reserved in most seminars, and I prayed similar prayers many times in the remaining three and a half years in graduate school, but one thing did change. Sensing God’s love overcoming my shame, I felt enough security to begin speaking honestly with other students. As I told them how I felt, I was surprised to find that they experienced similar doubts and fears. In moments of vulnerability the suffering and scared part of me connected with the suffering and scared part of others, forming community and friendships of deep solidarity. 

The contrasting image is a person who, in the words of Frederick Herzog, “seeks security in external things  .  .  . [and] has built a wall between his true self and the pseudoself he displays.” Wearing masks and presenting a pseudoself means one is not in open relationship with others. It is a counterfeit community of one pseudoself talking to another pseudoself. 

The context of my story, a graduate studies program in a renowned university, may be foreign to many readers of this book, but I am sure my experience of shame, the act of wearing masks and presenting a pseudoself is not foreign to most readers. It is certainly not unique to doctoral students. 

Christian spirituality entails much more than a couple graduate students standing in the hall sharing their fears about seminars. But my experience demonstrates the link between a person experiencing peace with God, dropping his mask, and having richer relationships and more authentic community. As we come into God’s family, we possess an honorable identity that leads to peace and reconciliation with other people."

The above story may be found in Jayson Georges and Mark Baker. Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016), Kindle Locations 2305-2343.

Photo credit: Alex E. Proimos

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