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  • Writer's pictureEmma Nash

Overcoming shame

Today I finalised the index of my book. It's a book about the pain of involuntary childlessness, so the index is not exactly a laugh a minute. It was an interesting process, seeing which were the longest entries. Biblical references aside, 'infertility' had the most entries in the index, closely followed by 'IVF', but the third most common concept was 'shame'.

I had considered writing a whole chapter on shame, but decided in the end that it was so closely tied up with other concepts that I couldn't disentangle it. There is a whole chapter entitled 'Alone', which explores the isolation often experienced by people who struggle with childlessness. Shame isolates us from other people - indeed, that could almost be a definition of shame. People who are ashamed hide their faces; they hide away. In the case of people experiencing involuntary childlessness, there can be a self-imposed isolation, as they protect themselves from pain by withdrawing socially and emotionally.

As part of the chapter on pain (like I said - not a laugh a minute) I briefly explore the ways in which infertility is an 'un-sexing' experience, and fertility treatment demeaning for both sexes. The shame a person might feel over a low sperm count or low ovarian reserve is misplaced - these are physical realities which are completely outside our control. And yet, the shame remains. Infertility and unwanted childlessness are hard to talk about, because they are shaming. We may feel less feminine or less masculine if we are unable to conceive a child, or to carry a child to term. Chapter four is entitled 'Barren' - a very harsh word which, for me, captures the profound hopelessness (and shame) of being unable to have a baby.

The original title of my book was 'Reaching for the fringe of his cloak'. (My publishers sensibly pointed out that, while poetic, it didn't exactly help people understand what the book was about). This is an allusion to the story of a woman who reaches out and touches Jesus' cloak, longing for healing (Mark 5.25-34; the story is also in Matthew and Luke). She has been suffering for twelve years from haemorrhages, has spent all the money she has on doctors, and has not been healed. She embodies what it is to live in shame. Here's an extract from the book:

'We do not know how old this woman was, and whether she already had children. Perhaps she had developed this debilitating condition after giving birth. It is entirely possible, however, that she had suffered in this way since puberty, in which case she is unlikely to have married and it seems highly unlikely that she will have been able to produce children. Many modern readers of the Bible are familiar with the Jewish purity laws which dictated that certain people were ritually ‘unclean’. A menstruating woman would not have been able to go to the temple, and were she to touch anyone during her menstruation she would make them unclean too. As she was always menstruating, the woman in this story would have suffered terrible isolation. She epitomizes what it is to live in shame. She was ‘bad’ from the inside out, unfit to touch others, let alone to come before God, ostracized from her community – and all because of something over which she had no control. Any woman who has gone through the monthly ritual of trying to time her ovulation, having regular sex with her partner at her most fertile time of the month, the early pregnancy test and bitter disappointment, will understand the frustration of having no control over her own body. How fervently this nameless woman has tried to cure herself of her affliction, using all the money she had to pay for medical care, to no avail. And this desperate woman has dared to stretch out her hand and touch someone, and a holy man at that. Despite her ostracism, her years of shame, she still has enough faith and enough hope to reach for the fringe of Jesus’ cloak.

The Bible tells us that her haemorrhage stops immediately – she is miraculously healed – and yet surely this is not the most wonderful part of the story. Jesus knows that healing power has gone out from him, and perhaps knows exactly what has happened, but he insists on talking with the person who has been healed. ‘Who touched me?’ he asks. Courageous though the woman has already been in reaching out in faith for her healing, surely coming before Jesus to own up to what she has done takes even more courage. This shamed, untouchable woman, whose condition is so mortifying, has to admit to Jesus why she touched him. She has to allow herself to be seen. And yet, far from rebuking her, Jesus speaks the words that complete her healing: ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace’ (Luke 8.48). He commends the faith she has shown in reaching out to God, through him, to ask for divine healing. Far from condemning her, Jesus praises her. ‘Go in peace.’ Her healing is as emotional and psychological as it is physical. She is accepted. She is enough. She is a woman of faith, loved by God.'

'Reaching for the fringe of his cloak' was, for me, an image of faith seeking consolation and healing, which was exactly why I wrote the book. The process of writing was a reaching out to grasp what I could find in the library, in the scriptures, in the riches of Christian theology and spirituality. It was a reaching out to a God I still believed was there, but whom I was finding it difficult to trust. And I liked the word 'reaching' because it suggested something that was a process, rather than the work of a moment. Reaching for Jesus, hoping and perhaps believing that he will heal me, see me, grant me the peace for which I long.

A Pastoral Theology of Childlessness is available to preorder here. Register for the Zoom book launch here.

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