An Aha! Moment

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In today’s reading of my current book, I Thought It Was Just Me by Brené Brown, I started in on the chapter of shame resilience. This is a topic that I’ve written about previously, as the concept is introduced in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, which I’ve recently finished reading. However, this is an entire chapter on the subject, not just a few pages, and therefore it covers the concept in greater detail.

In today’s reading, it discusses how shame and its by-products fear, blame, and disconnection, are on one end of what she calls the Shame Resilience Continuum. On the other end is empathy, with its by-products courage, compassion, and connection. In helping explain how the women she interviewed overcame their shame and built resilience to it (remember, her research was limited to women only, but the concepts are applicable to anyone), she wrote the following:

When I asked women to share examples of how they recovered from shame, they described situations in which they were able to talk about their shame with someone who expressed empathy. Women talked about the power of hearing someone say:

  • “I understand – I’ve been there.”
  • “That’s happened to me too.”
  • “It’s OK, you’re normal.”
  • “I understand what that’s like.”

When I read these words, I realized that I had read words like this before, and that I’ve been familiar with this concept for years. In fact, I’ve written about it before in this very blog, not quite five months ago.

Back on January 14, when I was lamenting the back-to-back losses of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, I wrote about something called the Law of Conservation of Pain and Joy, a concept introduced in a series of short stories by Spider Robinson compiled into a novel called Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon. For the full background on the book, I refer you back to my original post, linked above, but I want to quote the relevant part of what I wrote back then.

… but the overarcing principle of Callahan’s is the Law of Conservation of Pain and Joy, or more simply put, Callahan’s Law.

Callahan’s Law states that “shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased – thus do we refute entropy.” Alternately, it’s worded to say that “Just as there are Laws of Conservation of Matter and Energy, so there are in fact Laws of Conservation of Pain and Joy. Neither can ever be created or destroyed. But one can be converted into the other.”

When I read the phrases that these women that Brown interviewed for her research above, I had a moment where everything clicked. Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Their recovery from shame began when they shared the pain of their shame with others – “shared pain is lessened.” It’s the same principle that I’ve known about literally my entire adult life.

Up to this point in my life I’ve hidden away my greatest shame for so long that I’ve blocked most of it out. I remember bits and pieces of it here and there, but for the most part it’s lost to time – but there’s still enough to trigger me whenever I see others experiencing what I did. In time I’m going to discuss this with my therapist – every little detail I remember – and once and for all share that pain that triggered by PTSD and subsequent perpetuation of my shame throughout my teenage years and into the greatest part of my adulthood. There are some that know parts of the story. I’ve only ever told the entire thing to my wife, and she can sympathize but not empathize, because she hasn’t experienced what I did. This is going to be an extremely difficult thing to process, but I’m hopeful that when I do, I will start to recover from my own deeply rooted shame.

I suddenly cannot wait to get deeper into this book.

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On Bowie and Rickman; or, Callahan’s Law

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My social media feeds have exploded with remembrances of David Bowie and Alan Rickman.

The parallels between them are notable: both beloved for their extensive bodies of work, both British, both dead at age 69 from cancer within days of one another.

The public was shocked by the news of David Bowie’s passing – no one I know even knew he was sick – and was still adjusting to a world without the Thin White Duke when news about Alan Rickman’s death came and opened that wound anew.

Social media is notorious for its signal-to-noise ratio. Meaningless and sometimes erroneous memes are distributed in a desperate attempt to chase one’s 15 minutes of fame. Clickbait is the new journalism. Don’t read the comments for anything, lest the madness be infectious.

But every once in a while, the Internet becomes an online version of Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon.

For those not familiar with this work, Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon is a compilation of short stories that revolve around Mike Callahan, his bar, and its regulars. Written in the late 70s and early 80s by Spider Robinson, it tells magnificent science fiction tales full of empathy and acceptance. No one could really tell you where Callahan’s was, but if you needed to find the place, you would. Puns flew like darts (and both are relevant to the story, in their own way), but the overarcing principle of Callahan’s is the Law of Conservation of Pain and Joy, or more simply put, Callahan’s Law.

Callahan’s Law states that “shared pain is lessened shared joy, increased – thus do we refute entropy.” Alternately, it’s worded to say that “Just as there are Laws of Conservation of Matter and Energy, so there are in fact Laws of Conservation of Pain and Joy. Neither can ever be created or destroyed. But one can be converted into the other.”

Callahan’s is a wonderful, thought-provoking, hilarious read that I would recommend to you – that is, if you can stomach puns. The novel and its sequels are thick with them.

But I would propose that in times like these, whenever we mourn collectively, the Internet becomes our Callahan’s, with the Law firmly in effect.

As I stated earlier, my Facebook feed is almost completely comprised of remembrances of both Bowie and Rickman. There are a lot of my friends, myself included, that have been moved to tears by the two sudden losses. Their deaths are affecting many people that I know and millions that I don’t, and so we’re pausing the usual drivel of social media to make it a forum of substance.

In our stories about how each man touched our lives in their own special way, we are sharing our pain with the legions of followers many of us have on social media. And sharing that pain helps to lessen its impact on us. We’re remembering happy times where Bowie’s music was particularly meaningful or Rickman’s performances made us smile and even laugh. One story details something that triggers another story, and so on, and so the Internet collectively has become the world’s wake for these beloved men. In our sorrow, we remember what it was about them that made us happy, and we’re reminded of those times.

Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased.

One more thing about the bar. Drinks carry two prices at Callahan’s. You can either drop a dollar in the cigar box on the bar and pull out two quarters’ change, and drink your drink as you normally would, or you can leave the whole dollar in the box to make a toast. To make a toast at Callahan’s, you need only step up to the line in front of the fireplace, and the whole crowd will quiet down to hear what you have to say. You make your toast, you down your drink, and then you throw the glass into the fireplace as hard as you can. It’s okay, the fireplace is hyperbolically designed to prevent shards from flying back out into the crowd. And often, that one glass is followed in short order from glasses flying into the fireplace from everywhere in the bar. Mike has to make a point of sweeping out the broken glass every night. He doesn’t mind, though, he gets a bulk discount on the glasses.

So, having left my dollar in the cigar box on the counter, I will walk to the line, raise my glass, and simply state in a clear, ringing voice: To Bowie! To Rickman!

And the sound of shattering glass from within this virtual Callahan’s shall be deafening.