Shame. It’s an obscure word. Sometimes people tell you to be ashamed of yourself – often you don’t know why. Sometimes we admit that we are ashamed of ourselves, but what we really mean is we are embarrassed, mortified, upset, saddened, disgusted. There’s a vast lexicon of words that could adeptly substitute for the place shame takes in our regular speech.
Shame, with it’s harsh beginning that sounds like a violent ‘shush,’ before disappearing into the softness of an ‘mmm’, it’s a complex word. When have I ever truly been ashamed? I’ve been embarrassed, mortified, felt uncomfortable…
Once, that I can remember. I was in the middle of a stage, a theatre stage. I had just won a singing competition. I walked on to collect my award, slightly dazed, sweaty and conscious of a range of spotlights illuminating my face. It was me. Not the identity i carved when I sang, but just me. They asked me to give some words of thanks whilst accepting my award. The first person i wanted to thank was God. Then I cringed. What a typical oscar opening line – “I just wanna thank God for my life, my mom, dad, just, everyone who ever loved me” blah blah blah. No, the audience didn’t need to hear that. It would appear disingenuous, contrite, inauthentic. They wanted something quick, easy and unmemorable, they wanted to go home.
I thanked three people in quick succession. My mum, my twin and my singing teacher, then I skeddaddled out of there quick sharp, or at least, retreated back into myself whilst I waited on stage to take photos.
Today I spotified Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged Album. It got varying, and often condemnatory reviews when it launched in ’93. She had let her voice go, she had become moralizing, the songs were unfinished, undeveloped. These are all astute and evident observances. Her voice has taken on a taught, contracted quality that strains when she attempts to reach into a higher register. She does spend a good amount of time talking about herself, life lessons, God and his redeeming love, hope, liberation and contesting the confining music industry that wanted to prostitute her for all her worth.
But there is one track that struck me. Just in the last few minutes of ‘Gotta Find Peace of Mind,’ something breaks. The emotion bursts forth like a dammed river, her voice cracks, but it cracks deep inside the being of the voice. There is a mental, emotional gear shift because what she is singing about, what she is proclaiming, is resonating within her like close harmonics. She can’t but admit how merciful he is. Her Coda just is: “merciful, god you are so merciful.”
She bared her soul to the world and was unashamed to say something unattractive: simply exactly what she was feeling.
So often we try to compartmentalize ourselves into what people want. What they want to hear. Everything has a time, place, and audience. And yet, we cry out for authenticity, to know one another, to be in relationship, friendship. We revolt against the manufactured images that plaster our inportable world. The unattainable ideals. We want to see real women, we cry, real men, real jobs.
Shame comes when we suppress our voice and produce a lip-synched sound that fits with what we assume our audience wants to perceive.
I was ashamed when I left the stage that day. I wanted to proclaim in the most corny, cheesy, and absolutely overdone fashion the words – thank you God for my life and this opportunity. Thank you for blessing me with this gift.
Maybe no one wanted to hear it. But it was what I wanted to say, and considering they asked me to speak, it was my right.
Miss Hill seems to have lost her shame and become all the more attractive for it. She’s found her voice, and, most importantly, she uses it – constantly.