AAPI and Mental Health Awareness Month – Seeing past the “Smile”

This post mentions suicide. If that’s a trigger to you, skip this post. It’s nothing more graphic than what you’d read in the news, especially news as of late. Speaking about news…

I’ll never forget when I first got the news…my former housemate Jack Quon had taken his own life, leaving behind his wife (whom I’ve known since my high school years) and four young children. The suicide was covered on T.V. and the newspapers. If you can access it, here’s one of reports:

In the report, one of the statements read “Jack always had a smile on his face. Never did we see him raise his voice out of anger. His words were always spoken with kindness and gentleness… Ultimately, he sacrificed his own life so (his wife) and his four children can be financially provided for. However, no amount of money can replace the person you were to each of us, Jack,”

Jackalways had a smile on his face.” That’s the Jack I knew. Sad thing is, I don’t believe the Chinese Evangelical church world he and I were products of taught us how to see the person behind the smile, especially if there’s pain behind that smile. I definitely have hid behind smiles a lot, especially as a minister and past “worship leader” on church stages. I was esteemed for being able to preach and play songs end to end like a human jukebox; I’m ashamed to say I fueled my own image. Many Chinese evangelical churches I’m familiar with (I’ve preached in dozens of them) have not done a good job to make space for what I call the “discipleship of the emotional life,” learning how to manage our emotions the way Jesus would. If anything, I’ve noticed that discipleship tends to be reduced down to a program, discipleship tends to be cognitive, and love for God is reduced to obedience, actions, and behavior. I too was the guy with the smile on my face, but I was also the guy out of touch with my feelings, grief, shame. My seminary training only made it worse; I was hired into prominent Christian jobs because, in hind sight, I was even-keeled, a product of learning to stuff my emotions growing up. I.e., I could “do the job” without stirring the pot. The smiles on my face was as asset outwardly, but inwardly, it was killing my soul.

Jackalways had a smile on his face.” Yet inside, shame drove him into hiding, that the circumstances that drove him to take his own life was hidden from even his own family. The non-integration of shame into theological teaching and church teaching is systemically problematic, especially when one considers that shame is a prominent theme in the Biblical story, a prominent theme in Asian culture AND now a prominent theme in our Western culture. Perhaps no one else has better brought shame to the center stage than best-selling author and Netflix star Brené Brown. She calls shame a “silent epidemic” because no one is talking about it but it effects everyone. There are a lot of people like Jack in churches with smiles on their faces, smiles that hide a completely different reality. Jesus saw past the smiles and inquired past the face. How can we?

Jack hid the pain from even his own family out of shame. Think about the suicide rates in Asian countries, similarly driven by shame. In China and other Asian countries, shame and the dynamic of “losing face, saving face” has been the operating system of how life operates well before Brené Brown. I did not know it at the time, but my family’s relationships were governed by shame, honor, and its derivatives. For example, we ALWAYS had butter cookies to give anyone who gifted us with something. And my parents often compared me to other kids and families who had a “better face.” All these tactics served to “save face”, provide motivation, and protect our family honor. Thankfully, my parents were not as extreme as the kind of shame culture made famous by Amy Chua in her “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” book. And publicly, shame is the cultural operating system that governs people. I think about how traffic violators in China are shamed, printed up on the internet. Though shame is quickly increasing in the West, especially among the younger generations due to factors like social media, the West repels shame and its related categories like reciprocity and patronage. These are collective categories that our Western world resists. Yet, in the more collective world if Asia, shame and honor are part of the air, the culture, and undergirds all relationships.

However, shame and honor categories ought not be relegated to Asian countries and peoples. I hear that assumption a lot. Instead, shame and honor ought to be familiar with Christians being that it’s a central narrative of the Bible that finds its culmination at the cross. Sadly, shame and honor are not mainstream topics in Christian training and discipleship; blame the western influence on theology for generations. The shame narrative starts in Genesis when Adam and Eve felt no shame being naked…then experienced shame when their “eyes were opened” after they ate of the fruit. At that time, Adam and Eve could no longer stand before the “face” (or presence) of God. The shame narrative obviously finds its culmination on the cross where shame was reversed unto honor. This is of course is the narrative of all the faithful people in the biblical narrative, of whom a subset are listed in Heb 11. Think about it. All of them were in a status of shame before God lifted them up to an honorable place. Yet in the dozens of churches I’ve preached in, this prominent narrative is unfamiliar to the majority. Perhaps that’s because too many are trained to read the Bible in a fragmented way, taking the parts we like, memorizing individual verses instead of reading the Bible as a whole, and letting the whole interpret the parts. In evangelical seminaries and public Christian publications like Christianity Today, the concepts of shame are making inroads, slowly. But last time I checked, “systematic theology” books used in evangelical seminaries only list shame in 1 in 15 volumes according to one study (when I have more time, I’ll cite the source 🙂 ) Altogether, our Western culture is FAR from reflecting the weight that shame and honor play in the biblical narrative. Does our individualistic, nationalistic, “replacement theory” rhetoric and CRT-suspicious culture have anything to do with it? I think so, although there’s a bigger narrative driving those. By default, Jesus-followers in the West have inherited these lenses and displaced shame and the bigger umbrella of emotional discipleship. “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” perhaps the most famous of church narratives that displaced emotional discipleship, documents their implosion. That narrative coming to light might signal a turnaround, perhaps.

The evangelical church exclusion of shame is further compounded by the fact that the evangelical church moved out of urban contexts (white flight), began to intentionally side with the republican right (Reagan)…and the list goes on and on…it’s no wonder that a more holistic, robust expression of Christian faith, one that embodies a discipleship of the emotional life, one that actually trains people to become the kind of vulnerable, lay down one’s power kind of faith is still too rare here in the West. I’m not slamming those who live in suburbs. I AM asking questions of motive, ones that protect us, keeping us away from others not like us (like those who live in San Francisco). In the West, we heroicize the biblical characters. But God is the only hero, the compassionate Father, hospitable enough to invite the most destitute, “end of their rope” type of people to experience the honor of being in God’s family.

“However, no amount of money can replace the person you were to each of us, Jack.”

Those words bring a sad resonance to the narratives I’ve often read or heard through LGBTQ narratives, especially those of trans youth who face taking their own lives, thinking they too are not worthy to live. Regarding of where one stands on the gay issue, sex-change surgeries, etc. wouldn’t we want our loved ones alive? Doesn’t life trump doctrine? Don’t the Gospels and Acts make that clear? I infer that Jack made the insurance money more important than life itself; provision for his family was more important than his own life. But instead, there are too many marginalized peoples just like Jack, just like entire populations of people, youth even, who feel such shame, that they are driven to take their own lives…perhaps because the “Gospel” they heard and experienced was not the same Gospel that shows inclusion for all the “othered” people in Jesus’ genealogy, the “othered” people to whom the birth announcement was given to. Lives are beloved, given value by others, especially by One who gave his life. I don’t blame Jack entirely for taking his own life because I don’t believe church communities made space to see behind his smile. This systemic issue needs to change.

If Jack’s community inquired behind his smile, would they have referred him to counseling? most likely yes…but I’m guessing he would not have gone. Perhaps in his eyes, counseling while his house foreclosed would bring about even more shame than taking his own life. We can’t depend on mental health services to be the only solution to this “silent epidemic” of shame. Though I personally advocate for mental health services, it’s not enough, even if great progress is made to lower the stigmas and cultural barriers for BIPOC. An example of lowering the barriers would be employing more collective, narrative forms of therapy, something I’ve been advocating for whenever I guest lecture for therapists in training. Recently, one of my former board members wrote a paper on narrative therapy (which I’ll send to you on request) and Kingdom Rice has been applying the principles in that paper on the field. But even more than lowering the thresholds to mental health services, we’ve got to develop leaders who can develop communities in the ebb and flow of daily life who can make space for the emotional life and even grow it. I.E., we need to train people on the front lines. This is what churches should normatively embody.

There’s progress however, to equip leaders who can impact their respective communities with a culture that makes space for the emotional life. That’s why I was excited to work with therapists from Allender Center who have ported their 40+ year program of healing and restoration into a BIPOC context. That’s very special when you consider that BIPOC are less likely to access mental health services. The vision is getting trauma care into the hands of those on the front lines. In this case, ministers on college campuses and pastors, people who already have an influence on others. It’s a wise strategy, one I believe that resonates with how Jesus trained his disciples for the most profound impact.

May is both AAPI and Mental Health Awareness month. How ironic given everything I just wrote. “Jack always had a smile on his face.” That’s a profoundly haunting quote. That’s exactly how I experienced Jack when I lived with him. I regret not having the perspective I’ve articulated here, a perspective shaped by my proximity with others who have been displaced, marginalized, and shamed. My friendship with them have helped me to see my own shame, where I’ve been displaced, and marginalized, and how to manage the drivers as Jesus would. These experiences have helped me to spot the times I’ve worn the smile on my face as a way to deflect what was really going on inside. Today, I’m learning to notice what I’m feeling, my bodily sensations. I’m horrible at these things naturally, so I’m slowly building structures into my life to make my own mental awareness more of a lifestyle. And yes, I regularly see a therapist too as part of my self-care. If you are interested in what this journey looks like in my life, see this separate blog.

The prominent dysfunctions of Western institutional Christian expressions have fed a non-discipleship of the soul, of the emotional life. As I’m working that out for myself through a spirituality that gives prominence to the inner life and self-care, I’m also investing in movements that brings this perspective and training to others in the trenches. That’s why I started Kingdom Rice. There is Good News that reverses one’s shameful lie that they are not worthy. We need that truth more than ever, especially with the recent unthinkable series of tragedies we’re facing.

Could it be that in light of these atrocities, God is inviting us to a more collective, communal season of grief? Could it be that these are bridges of connection to others we normally would not engage with? Indeed, this is a major part of the Good News. I wish I could have seen past Jack’s smile and offer him this news. But I have been offering this to others as vulnerably and sensitively as I can, coming from a broken soul who has been lifted up and honored by the grace of God.

1 Comment

  1. Susan Houg on June 23, 2022 at 11:40 am

    I was very moved by this, Steve. And gladdened because of the much fruit being born by this seed which fell into the ground.

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