By Grace, Not Shame
by Andrew Shi
“I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.”
The above quotation is from an excerpt in Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Ms. Chua, who earned the infamous title “Tiger Mom” after the book’s publication in 2011, believes that the Chinese way of parenting is superior to that of Westerners.
Ms. Chua’s approach to parenting is reflective of the ethos of shame in Chinese culture that drives success and performance. There is a phrase in Chinese—diu lian—whose English equivalent is losing face. To lose face has implications beyond how one feels about oneself: being a disgrace is to let your parents down and to bring shame to your family and its reputation in society.
My parents, unlike Ms. Chua, are actually far from authoritarian. Since we immigrated to the US from China in 2001, my mom has been a housewife (5 boys!) and my dad has been advancing his career in academia. A few of my friends have helicopter parents, who loom over their every thought and action. By contrast, I have what I’ll call submarine parents, who surface every once in a while to see how things are before plunging back in to the busyness of our family life.
Despite—and perhaps because of—my parents’ hands-off approach to parenting, I felt a need to please my parents by proving to them that they had no reason to worry about me, their eldest son. The one thing I most dreaded was being a disappointment. Fear and shame were my surrogate helicopter parents, looming above my thoughts and actions and pushing me to constantly do more and try harder.
At home, I did my chores. I took care of my brothers. At school, I earned good grades. I tried out many extra-curricular to fatten up my “well-roundedness” as a college applicant. I was a “good” Christian. I co-founded a Christian club at school. I led the praise band at church. At the time, if you asked me what motivated me in life, my response would have likely varied each time I thought about the question. But I most certainly wouldn’t have told you—or myself, for that matter—that I was, like a shipwrecked child, constantly gasping for the next breath of air to avoid going under in a sea of shame.
Shame infests itself in my culture in particular, but it would be naïve to think shame is a cultural problem. I think of the thousands of students right on our campus who sincerely believe that failure to reach the top—in grades, leadership, looks, jobs—is not an option. In a recent blog post, Michael Lee eloquently articulates the effects of this mentality:
…I realized that if you base your entire worth as an individual on what you have done in comparison to others, you would never be content because you are constantly searching to attain an elusive, unattainable benchmark.
Don’t get me wrong: shame is a strong motivator, and more likely than not it will produce results. But I’m convinced that no amount of success will be enough to satiate shame’s demands for more. More power, more reputation, more whatever it is you dream of and measure your identity against. Shame is like age: you can pretend that it doesn’t really affect you. Or you can recognize it, see its effects, and marvel at its power. Either way, however, nothing that you or I can do will cure it.
But for the grace of God, I would still be drowning in shame today. Christians understand grace as a free gift of God, not something that we can earn by our strivings to self-improve or our performance on a moral scale. On the cross, Jesus died the painful and humiliating death of a criminal so that we may be acquitted from our shameful mess that is called sin. Jesus lived up to the life that we could never live on our own. Yet for our sake, he experienced shame—he lost face—so that we, the disappointments, can finally lift up our heads to look at God, face to face.
Grace replaces shame as the source from which I draw motivation to pursue success and excellence in all things. Grace doesn’t demand a performance; rather, it asks for my whole life and devotion. Grace doesn’t fear for the future, because—spoiler alert—things do turn out quite okay in the end. If we are willing to let go of our shame and put on the garments of grace, we might be relieved to discover that God’s got our future in his hands—and oh, is it glorious.