Vern was just eighteen when she gave birth to a baby girl and she moved away shortly afterward. The little girl spent the first six years of her life in rural, segregated Mississippi with a grandmother who beat her regularly. Although she was brilliant and had learned to read before the age of three, she was regularly punished for anything her grandmother didn’t like. One time, when the young girl went to the well to get some water for the house, she became intrigued by the water and began to play in it with her fingers. Her grandmother saw it and beat her so badly that the girl bled from the welts on her back. When she put on her dress for church, the welts bled through the dress and her grandmother beat her again for getting blood on the dress.
She left her grandmother at six to move to Milwaukee with her mother, but while there the woman in charge of the house her mother lived in made the girl sleep on the porch. And at nine years old, she was raped. She continued to be abused between the ages of ten and fourteen, when she found out she was pregnant. Two weeks after she gave birth, the baby died. In that baby’s life she had built hope for a new life of her own, and when it died, her hope for the future died, too. But that summer she took an acting class for the first time and she allowed the pain, turmoil and emotion of her life to emerge on stage. She began to feel a cathartic purge as the thoughts and feelings she had kept trapped on the inside of her were finally forced to the outside.
Although her healing did not happen immediately, she discovered over years that giving voice to her pain was the first step toward healing from it. And her voice has become a source of healing, hope and inspiration to millions. The baby girl who was originally named Orpah, but was called Oprah due to mispronunciation, has become one of the most recognized names in the world. And yet, behind the celebrity, wealth, power and influence is a woman who had to discover the power to rise from her past. A woman like you. A woman like me.
The hurtful things that happen to us, no matter how long ago they may have been, create mile-markers in our life that are difficult to escape because our life becomes defined by what happened "before" and "after" the event. And for some of us, the things that happened become part of our identity. We view ourselves through their lens and begin to believe we are nothing more than they say we are. But at the heart of these thoughts is a fear that we were somehow complicit in what happened. And that can be paralyzing.
Although we tend to use the words guilt and shame interchangeably, they are actually entirely different. We feel guilty about something we did and its impact on the people we care about. We can even feel guilty about things we didn’t even do, simply because of its impact on the people we care about. Shame, on the other hand, is entirely different. Shame doesn’t just cause us to feel guilty about what happened; shame assumes the responsibility for what happened and attributes it to our identity. Brene Brown defines this by saying, “Guilt says I made a mistake; shame says I am a mistake.” There are things in our past that we aren’t proud of, but if we allow those things to define who we are, we will begin to live in a state of shame.
As a survivor of childhood physical and sexual abuse, I blamed myself for what I suffered for many years of my life, but as I've grown through my walk with God, I began to realize that the things that happened to me created a broken identity where I saw myself as worthless. It was only when I began to see myself through the filter of God’s Word that I realized I was made for so much more than just surviving. I was made to thrive and flourish. And you are, too. Even when uncertainty is the only thing you’re certain of, there is hope and an opportunity to thrive through God. Uncertainty can breed fear and fear can change the way we show up in the world. But, the Bible lets us know that God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear and, instead, gives us power, love and a sound mind.
Lord, I'm ready to release myself from the fear I've allowed to lead my life and decisions for too long. I am not what happened to me. I am a victor through the redeeming power of Jesus Christ. Amen.