Demotion. The word sent a chill through me after I blinked away the initial shock. One day I was Marketing Director for a tech start-up valued at $60M and the next I was simply a Project Manager.
My emotions churned and roiled with the news. I pushed back on the CEO’s decision.
His apology helped but didn’t change the fact that he found someone better suited to the role. Sleepless nights and unfocused days followed. Finally, I was able to name the restless emotion within: a raw and pervasive shame.
I wanted to quit. I wanted to move somewhere far away. But my equity in the company was tied to staying three more years. And my moments of clarity in prayer matched the advice from trusted friends in a single word: “stay.” I was pinned to the diminished role and to my shame for the foreseeable future.
At the same time, two unexpected books by Vancouver authors crossed my path. A friend handed me a copy of Amazing Grace, Bruce Hindmarsh’s new biography of John Newton. I am a fan of the song and the man who penned it, and dove in.
Spoiler alert: I had no idea that Newton was a slave to an African princess before becoming the captain of a slave trading ship, later returning to that same princess to purchase other humans. His line “a wretch like me” is painfully autobiographical. Newton knew the wretchedness of slavery inside out and the deeper wretchedness of perpetuating a practice he loathed.
The book’s quick pace and informed midrash transported me to the 18th century, shrinking my problems with start-up culture into perspective. Indeed, Newton understood shame at a level I can barely imagine. His own enslavement was grim, but his story didn’t end with iron chains on his ankles. Nor did it end barking orders on the quarter deck of a slave ship.
It took multiple humiliations and divine rescues, but eventually Newton found his amazing grace. When he did, it sunk into his bone and marrow. “Those who have been forgiven much, love much.” As Newton himself wrote, he ever afterwards “walked softly all my days under the remembrance of many things.”
By the last page, I was ready to trade my combat boots in for slippers.
The second unexpected book was Now I Become Myself by Ken Shigematsu. Ken didn’t know my situation when he sent me a copy. The subject of the book is shame, which initially made me eager to read it.
But I was hesitant as well, because I wasn’t ready to dissect the psychology of shame in gory detail. Or perhaps I expected stories of dramatic fails and misdeeds that would only remind me of my own misery.
There are a few of those, but the book is more like a long hug from a friend. That may not sound appealing, but as a person walking the valley of the shadow of shame, I can assure you it is.
Ken’s gentle admonitions to “choose joy” amidst suffering, consent to the work of the Holy Spirit, and stop trying to perform for God had a settling effect.
All this was reinforced by the Prayer Exercises after each chapter. I was tempted to gloss over them, but they landed up being the best part of the book. Taking the time to deliberately slow down, breathe and remain open to God even at my worst brought a palpable measure of healing.
Now I Become Myself won’t deliver systematic theology and some readers may sidestep the references to neuroscience and pop psychology. But the book doesn’t repeat be-your-best-self platitudes. A gospel ethos undergirds the whole: God’s-love-makes-us-our-best-self.
Contiguous with Ken’s earlier writing, the book is crammed with memorable vignettes and quotes from spiritual directors like Ignatius, St. Teresa and Merton. When I reached the insightful meditation on Peter’s apostasy in the Epilogue, I was ready to read the book again.
The first few weeks of work in my new role have been a struggle. I better understand the business logic of the demotion, but some days I’m counting down the hours until my shifts end.
Still, an echo of Amazing Grace faintly hums above the pings from Slack and social media. And I work with a lingering sense that God is ready to embrace me at my worst – and wants to root my identity in something far more secure than my job title.
“Nothing has changed but my attitude, therefore, everything has changed.” – Anthony de Mello
Jacob Buurma works in website design and product marketing for a range of organizations, from research groups in Mongolia to crypto projects in New York. Browse more of his travel writing at buurma.ca.