“Children can feel, but they cannot analyse their emotions.”- Charlotte Bronte
I saw too many people in one day. Tired, in my introverted way, I have not left my apartment today. I picked up a book I read in high school- Jane Eyre. I do not remember why I chose to read it back then, as it was not required. It was probably a silly reason like having similar names and the same initials. It probably had to do with the fact that if you are a literature nerd teenage girl, you will likely read Jane Austen or one of the Bronte sisters at some point.
I never related to Jane Austen’s heroines the way I related to Jane Eyre. And I wanted to smack Emily Bronte’s melodramatic heroines in the face. But Jane was someone who I could share life with. As a 16-year-old girl, I felt closer to Jane Eyre than any fictional character I had experienced in a movie or book.
Her childhood circumstances seemed dramatically grim– sadder than anyone else I knew. But she was so real, so lifelike. I related to how she resisted her aunt and her bullies. As a girl, who was also bullied, I was sometimes led to think by culture that my reactions were wrong. If I stood up for myself in haste and rashness and passion, I got nothing but trouble.
A conversation she had with an older girl in her school intrigued me. I would have reacted much like Jane:
“But that teacher, Miss Scatcherd, is so cruel to you?”
“Cruel? Not at all! She is severe: she dislikes my faults.”
“And if I were in your place I should dislike her; I should resist her. If she struck me with that rod, I should get it from her hand; I should break it under her nose.”
“Probably you would do nothing of the sort: but if you did, Mr. Brocklehurst would expel you from the school; that would be a great grief to your relations. It is far better to endure patiently a smart which nobody feels but yourself, than to commit a hasty action whose evil consequences will extend to all connected with you; and besides, the Bible bids us return good for evil.”
“But then it seems disgraceful to be flogged, and to be sent to stand in the middle of a room full of people; and you are such a great girl: I am far younger than you, and I could not bear it.”
I hate how the teachers at this school for orphans use shame as a form of discipline. And they use the Bible as means to justify cruelty. What angers me here is that Helen Burns is socialized to see Jane as a child disobedient to God. When really, Jane is resisting shame. She sees through the discipline and sees that no one is worth being severely punished and humiliated. Over the course of the first part of the novel, Jane practices resilience. Her circumstances are bleak without love but she does continue to dream, her desires are not yet shut down by the people who wish her to know that she is not worth a thing.
Jane did experience a lot of shame as an abandoned orphan. She is slow to trust because of that, and slow to express love. I can relate a lot to her. Because of being bullied, I have established patterns of fearing rejection. My shame keeps me where I feel I am not worthy of love, only harsh discipline.
According to Brene Brown in Gifts of Imperfection, shame is the fear of being unlovable. When we have this fear, we want to hide who we are and not own our story. We lose our sense of worth. We hate talking about shame, but the less we talk about it the more control it has over our lives. Shame does not have to be named to be experienced and to paralyze us. Brown says that the fear of being perceived as unworthy is enough to force us to silence our stories.
Shame resilience, however, is the ability to recognize shame, to move through it constructively as we are also maintaining worthiness and authenticity. In Group Dynamics class, I had to talk about shame as part of a group presentation. As I stood there, fumbling over my words and using filler words such as “like” and “so,” I became fully aware of the class sitting there, looking at me, and I simply felt scrutinized. Talking about shame in itself can be a shaming and vulnerable experience. I got through my part of the presentation, by looking at peoples’ eyes. They looked mortified, not at me. I realized that they were all taking in what a silent killer shame really is. It was resilient of me to bring it up and name what shame is, it was resilient to talk about it and leave knowing that people were relating to me. I could have put blinders on and pretended that everyone hated the talk, but I know that I simply had a captive audience.
Shame resilience requires owning our story, and being able to share it with others, and as a result of talking about shame in this presentation, it was beginning to lose its power over me. Shame is like Rumpelstiltskin. When I name it, it loses its grip and power and authority it has claimed on my life.
It has been shame that has kept me from sharing a lot of my story with others– especially the emotional abuse I experienced as a child, not from my parents, but from my own peers. As a young teenager I talked about the horrors of bullying with people in my church, got prayed over, and after a while I pretended to myself that I was OK. I became socialized to not sharing my emotions and pains with people– the shame kept me silent. And of course, that only built up my fear.
As a 16-year-old girl, I did could not put my finger on why Jane was becoming my friend. Now I see that we both suffered emotional abuse, we were shamed when we resisted, and we both let shame cage us.
I feel sad for my friend Jane, because even though she saw through the shaming, it was hard for her to disclose her own story. She kept people at a safe distance and learned to follow the rules. Innately, as a child she knew shaming was wrong and she fought bitterly for justice. But she was too young to “analyse” her emotions to fully know that she was right to feel the way she felt.
I feel also sad for myself and how long it has taken me to disclose my story. Obviously, I am vulnerable in sharing parts of it, but there are critical things that I hate letting my friends know about me. There are critical things that keep me wanting to hide inside during a rain storm after experiencing glimpses of vulnerability and true authenticity.
Look out for a post on Jane Eyre and Spirtual Orphanhood!