These days “the cloud” often refers to that large building under several acres located somewhere in North Carolina that houses millions of billions of bytes of storage or computing capacity that each of us, if we’re using a computer, probably accesses every day. It is not so much a real “thing” in and of itself, but rather the word that represents all those mainframe storage and computing gizmos that Google, Amazon, and Instagram use that enable you to do all your tech-based work without having to have a computer the size of your house.
Now, anyone who knows me will tell you I am not a technology expert by any scope of the imagination. But I use my laptop enough to have experienced the beauty of the cloud when it comes to everything from music to photos to to-do lists. And so far in my life, every time I need it, the cloud has faithfully backed me up. I can’t guarantee that it would never fail me, and people who know more about this than I do tell me it may not be where you want to store your most sensitive personal data, but it seems to have the capacity to back up just about anything without losing it. Which brings us to our topic for the day.
If you have been following my posts the last few weeks, you will notice that as we progressively tackle different elements of the topic of shame, we eventually come to the question of what to do about it. Vulnerability, as we saw last week, is necessary for any healing to take place. But if we are going to scorn shame, as the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews admonishes, we cannot do it alone. Once again, it is instructive to hear from the world of neuroscience. If I am to become a shame hunter, looking for my quarry as Jesus did in his temptation venture in the desert, I must do so in the company of friends by whom I am known and whose voices I am listening to that will tell me who I am—for real. Upon scorning shame, upon taking a shame inventory in order to seek it out and disallow it from catching me off guard, I must have ready at my disposal a deep awareness of a cloud of witnesses who, in addition are real people in my life, are also ones I actively incorporate in my imagination, in my memory, to whom I can turn in an instant to countermand shame’s accusations.
Maintaining a shame inventory, then, amounts to keeping a record or our encounters with it by making a mark on a three-by-five card each time they experience shame in the form of a sensation, image, feeling, thought, or behavior. They do not need to know any, let alone all the reasons for their reaction. Simply noting it, putting it on record, tends to interrupt shame’s neurobiological pathway, keeping one from traveling down shame’s rabbit hole. Merely interrupting this automatic pathway (1) prevents us from finding ourselves at the proverbial end of shame’s line with nowhere to go, and (2) allows us to have extended time in which, because we did not let ourselves go down the path in the first place, we can create new pathways of hope, without all the scurrilous self-condemnation.
But once we have found shame and scorned it, then what? This is where cloud support comes in. In the twelfth chapter of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, the writer begins by referencing “…such a great cloud of witnesses…” by whom his readers are being watched and presumably supported. This cloud refers to people, albeit suggested by the text to be deceased, who are encouraging and actively supporting the reader by their very presence (or at least by the readers’ awareness of it). And this reminds me of what neuroscience has been telling us over the past fifteen years. When we are connected to the minds of other people with whom we share secure attachments, we are enabled to confront shame, and immediately turn our attention to our memory of those relationships and their unfailing love for us.
This “turning of our attention” to this cloud of friends by whom we are loved does not guarantee that it will always be easy, and it is certainly always messy to some degree. But it is through the Body of Jesus—our friends who love Jesus and by whom we are deeply known—that we come to live and move and have our being. It is through encounters with real bone and blood sisters and brothers who will both remind us that we are forgiven when we share with them our shame—and unflinchingly look our brokenness, our sin in the eye and say, “You’re right. You were wrong,” that our minds are renewed and our brains are changed along the way. It is the great cloud of witnesses that becomes the embodied representation of Jesus that enables us to address shame directly without fearing that we will be left alone with it. This does not let us off the hook when it comes to sin. It merely creates the way forward such that we not only know true forgiveness, but we also find a way to scorn shame by turning our attention to those who truly love us, reminding us of a real Jesus who loves us even more.
In this way, initially turning our attention toward shame, and having done so scorning it by then immediately turning our attention to those by whom we are loved, our entire real-time experience of shame changes for the better, creating new neural networks with their associated new memories, all of which having been supported by that very cloud of witnesses, those fellow pilgrims who long to follow Jesus just as we do. With practice, we come to learn that shame, in the face of this great cloud of witnesses, holds no power over us. Evil begins to catch a glimpse of how the movie ends—and the news is not good for the bad guys.
Who are the members of your cloud? Who are those who bear witness not only to your shame but at the same time demonstrate in bone and blood their utter delight that you are on the earth—and so, like Jesus in John’s Gospel, “do what they see their Father doing,” being the cloud that never fails in its backup to all that you are, not least those parts you are sure that if they saw would lead to their certain abandonment of you?
When it comes to shame, we all need backup. So remember–entering the cloud will help everything compute.