The walls of my elementary school classroom, like most, were hung with posters carrying all manner of inspirational messages. (“The best preparation for good work tomorrow is good work today!”) The quotes were trite but true, as inspirational messages tend to be.
One in particular caught my fancy. “Nothing is more fragile than a snowflake,” it said. “But look what it can do when it sticks together.”
I remember feeling suddenly excited about the promise of that message—and I still feel that way today. It’s amazing what sticking together can do.
When it comes to fighting shame, sticking together is the most powerful force imaginable. The civil rights movement, the adoption reform movement, the recovery movement, and the women’s movement, just to name a few, illustrate how collective action can shrink the stigma that the dominant culture assigns to certain groups.
As new, more positive meanings develop, individuals begin to replace silence and shame with pride and the ability to speak up on their own behalf.
All of us struggle with shame, whether we know it or not. Shaming messages are all around us, whether it’s about our age, health, class, sexual orientation, appearance, accent, education, or how we hold our spoon. These messages make us want to draw inward, fold ourselves up and hide in the darkest corner. But shame flourishes in the dark. It shrinks only when we feel safe to speak, act, and show up.
While not all of us will choose to become social activists, each of us can do our part to create the conditions of safety for others to show up and be real.
We can do this in small, everyday ways, by cultivating an attitude of respect, welcome, and openhearted curiosity about those who differ from us.
Let's remember that every single interaction we have with another person can help them feel welcome, valued, and seen—or the opposite.