There are things that no one wants to talk about – until those things happen to them and then they turn to the anonymous internet where they hope that someone else has done the unthinkable: shared their own experience of that very same thing. But they could never talk about that themselves, could they?
Everyone grows up learning which topics are ok to discuss at the dinner table, which ones should only ever be mentioned to a parent or priest, and which ones should never, ever be brought up – ever.
The trouble is, parents are terrible about communicating a distinction between those taboo subjects are culturally inappropriate, morally questionable, religiously offensive, or simply a question of personal dislike.
For example: when I was a kid, I was taught that burping out loud was basically sacrilegious; burping out loud was a sin – like breaking the 11th commandment or not loving your neighbor. Then again, maybe it was just impolite; something only rude people did. Now I wonder: was it really just a sensory kind of thing for my mom?
But being shamed for burping out loud isn’t a huge deal (actually the shaming bit is a big deal, but being asked not to burp isn’t). It’s not like I was told that I could never burp – I just had to keep that thing contained. Let it loose and who knows what havoc it could wreak? I could still let the biological gasses out, but we were never to acknowledge it. Or let it be heard. And we must absolutely never laugh at it.
It’s a familiar story to many of us, and whatever side of the burping line you happen to be on is just fine by me. We teach our kids that there are times when it’s ok to let one rip, and that there are circumstances where it is considered impolite and in which, should they choose to let the croaking stomach toad speak, it will be ignored at best, if not completely frowned upon.
Not talking about burping is one thing. But where burping is considered a shameful thing, it often follows that there are a great many other topics that aren’t discussed along with it, for fear of shocking those around us, making them uncomfortable, or displaying to them just how fast we are skidding down that slippery slope into the sticky swamp of sin (where slithery serpents slide sideways in S-shapes to seek slimy salamanders to scare them silly – alliteration: so addicting).
Other topics we didn’t discuss as a family, for fear of being shamed: attraction and, well, anything related to the opposite sex, including sex, arousal, desire, (except for lust; yes, we would talk about the evil of lust and how it should be avoided at all cost. It was really the #1 sin, especially for young boys. Better to cut cut off your penis, or gouge out your eyes, than to lust. Never mind that it had more to do with your thoughts than your physiology. I’m pretty sure I could still lust without eyes…), breasts, bras, underwear (and whatever mysteries were IN there), erections, nocturnal emissions, orgasms, fondling/petting (unless it was to lecture on the dangers of running the baseball bases of sex), condoms and other methods of prevention, STDs, and definitely nothing about same-sex attraction. Also: periods, along with cramping, feminine hygiene products, and doubting your faith, or questioning certain beliefs (because it would always end with a condescending “I will pray for you.” – code for: you’re a pagan to me now and I fear for your soul. Not all that helpful, in case you’re wondering).
With all those terrible topics off the table, it’s no wonder we never discussed sexual harassment or rape, let alone how to seek out help when you’re a victim of these things.
Ironically, we could talk about the horrors of WWII, the holocaust, concentration camps and gas chambers; that was all fine and good, but we couldn’t talk about
the wonders the horrors of sex.
Those who grew up in a similar culture of fear and shame and didn’t completely rebel against it become adults who find other unmentionable topics, like financial troubles, employment issues, losing one’s job or one’s car, challenges in their relationships – especially with partner and kids – and general unhappiness, not to mention depression – because one simply doesn’t talk about depression.
Once this trend is full-blown, you find that you can’t discuss racism, politics, religion, and really anything else other than the weather. You can’t even talk about music preferences, as you may be shamed for liking the wrong style, or songs with bad words, or challenging content, or the wrong beat, or music with drums at all.
A culture of fear and shame is a culture of silence. A culture of maintaining appearances. A culture where the hurting can’t find help – where their only hope of healing comes from within.
Silence is a powerful thing.
For the hurting, it is a power that binds them and keeps them down. For the wounded, silence is a power that conceals wounds and encourages them to fester.
Silence is a great oppressor. A culture of silence is a culture of oppression.
I say this as a father of 6 lively children; I love moments of delicious silence. That’s not the silence I’m referring to.
I mean the silence that is a response to fear and shame.
As we emerged from our respective cultures of silence, 20 years ago, Jessica and I came to two important realizations:
- We are judged all the time by most everyone, and there is no way to “do the right thing” according to everyone else’s standards. So we may as well live the way that seems right to us without fear of offending someone, because we will offend people no matter the choices that we make.
- Keeping silent about shameful things helps no one.
Keeping silent only serves to isolate us. It does nothing to either prevent others from experiencing the same shame and pain that we have, or to support others who find themselves in the same difficult experiences.
Silence did not help break the cycle of sexual abuse in Jessica’s family – a cycle that spans at least four generations. Silence did not prevent it from happening again. Silence did not equip anyone on how to deal with sexual harassment.
Silence did not help us heal from the shame-based aspects of our religious upbringing (and the cult that Jessica grew up in).
We decided to try something new from the beginning of our relationship. We were ready for something new. We tried talking about everything. With utmost respect for each other, we discussed the meaning of life, women, men, politics, religion, parenting, books, movies, music, everything – even the weather. We showed each other all of our wounds and struggles and discovered that we could do so without being shamed, and in so doing, we were no longer ashamed of them. And so we established a culture of discussion in our family.
When we discovered that two of our children had been sexually abused, we realized that we had a lot more talking to do. And so we did. We did together, and we did with the help of a professional counsellor, and we found healing in it – Jessica, me, and our kids too.
And countless people we knew where we worked who came forward and told us: “That thing that happened to your kids – it happened to me too. Thank you for talking about it.”
That is why we are anti-silence.
What if there were no taboo subjects?
What if we could each share our experiences, perspectives, doubts, our shame, fears, hopes, and dreams, without fear of judgment?
What if talking about our personal, unmentionable hardships is the path not only to our own healing, but for the healing of countless others who are trapped by shame and silence?
PS: we don’t shame our children. We even stopped using the word, along with common expressions like “Shame on you” because it communicates that there is something bad about the person, instead of the action of the person.