In the process of doing some research on George Herbert, I stumbled across a passage from Stanley Cavell’s essay on King Lear that I think is relevant to the themes I’ve been pursuing at here at First Thoughts and at Spiritual Friendship. Discussing the character of the Earl of Gloucester, Cavell writes that
if the failure to recognize others is a failure to let others recognize you, a fear of what is revealed to them, an avoidance of their eyes, then it is exactly shame which is the cause of his withholding of recognition [of his bastard son Edmund] . For shame is the specific discomfort produced by the sense of being looked at, the avoidance of the sight of others is the reflex it produces. Guilt is different; there is the reflex to avoid discovery. As long as no one knows what you have done, you are safe; or your conscience will press you to confess it and accept punishment. Under shame, what must be covered up is not your deed, but yourself. It is a more primitive emotion than guilt, as inescapable as the possession of a body, the first object of shame.
There’s much to ponder here, not least in relation to Lear itself, but I’m especially interested in the generic insight that the result of shame is an inability truly to see others, to offer others recognition. As Cavell puts it later, “recognizing a person depends upon allowing oneself to be recognized.”
This is one of the main reasons that I encourage gay Christians, when they ask me for advice, to come out. It’s not just that the enormous effort it takes to hide your sexuality involves an unhealthy self-focus, a constant policing of speech and actions, which can be profoundly crippling to your spiritual life (if my experience is any indication). It’s also that staying in the closet can cause you to refuse to recognize your gay or lesbian neighbors, all in an effort to stay hidden yourself.
Eve Tushnet made this point very well several years ago:
The closet also offers a lot of temptations to sin; I’d say for many people it just is a near occasion of sin. There’s the obvious temptation to lie. There’s the temptation to throw other people under the bus to make yourself look more hetero, or butcher or whatever. There’s the temptation to deny or speak uncharitably to openly gay friends (or, for that matter, enemies). There’s the temptation to cut yourself off from other people so they don’t get too closeto avoid friendship, and avoid help. Being in the closet makes it harder to act rightly. To the extent that being out involves humiliation and lost opportunities (although it is also extraordinarily freeing and opens a lot of doors you may not have realized existed) I would say that sometimes you have to journey through what Spenser called “the Gracious Valley of Humiliation.”
That seems exactly right to me, not least because of Cavell’s point: Shame leads not just to self-loathing but also to rejection of others. Shame isn’t just an individual problem; it’s a social one. And that’s partly why, in spite of the costs, I do think it’s best for Christians who experience same-sex attraction to open up and talk about it if at all possible.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?