I must have been seven years of age when I first experienced deep shame. A group of us were playing soldiers in the woods, and it was great fun despite the wet and cold. I’d only started hanging around with these kids a few weeks before, most of them were older, so I still felt like a bit of an outsider. One of the gang was called Mark. He was the same age as me, but he got on my nerves because of his loud and aggressive nature.
Mark decided to wrestle me to the ground. It was autumn, so I ended up face-down in heap of wet leaves. This was typical shit for him, and he expected his victims to just take it as a joke. I was a puny kid, but I felt angry, and I started throwing punches at him. I didn’t even know how to form a fist, but my anger scared him. The other guys stepped in to break up the fight.
Living as an Outcast
I just wanted to go home, but the other kids insisted that Mark and I apologize to each other and shake hands. I did it reluctantly because I knew it wouldn’t change anything. I could see that my assailant still thought he was in the right and that I’d been at fault for losing my temper over a joke. The rest of the group could see that there was still a lot of ill-will between the two of us, and they decided to make it their mission to repair the friendship.
We’d already created a clubhouse for the group in the forest by cutting out a cave inside of some enormous blackberry bushes. We’d been working on it for a few days, and it now had a real homely feel to it. We had a small comic-book library in there, and we’d added our own bean bags using cloth bags stuffed with leaves. We also stored boxes of staples in the hut that had been stolen from a nearby factory – we fired these staples with elastic bands when playing war.
It was decided that Mark and I would be banned from the clubhouse until we convincingly became friends again. In the meantime, we were told to build our own treehouse. It felt a bit unfair, but I agreed to the plan. I was sort of expecting Mark to storm off in a huff, but he surprised me by agreeing to it as well. There was a tree nearby with easy-to-reach thick branches that we were going to use for a lookout tower, but we were now going to build our ‘outcast hut’ there instead. The other guys went of to collect collect some wood and other building materials, so the two of us could just stay together and start building.
Mark and I managed to create something that sort of resembled a treehouse despite the fact that we were completely ignoring each other. We were probably the two least skilled builders in the group, but luckily we also had very low standards for workmanship. Once the experts in the group were satisfied that the floor was secure enough to hold our weight, myself and Mark were ordered to get in our hut and stay there until further instructions.
Opening My Heart in a Treehouse
It’s hard to ignore somebody when you are sitting facing them with your knees touching. Mark broke the ice by laughing, and I started to laugh too. It was a funny situation. Something shifted inside of me, and I looked at Mark and felt complete love for him. There was nothing sexual about it, but I just felt incredibly close to him. I understood that he was just like me. I just somehow knew that underneath all the loud talk and bullying, we shared the same hopes and fears.
We must have stayed in our hut for a couple of hours just talking and loving each other’s company. The feeling of my heart being so open to another human felt completely familiar, and I understood that it was my natural state. This special connection was broken when one of the older boys decided that we were acting “too gay”. Everyone started laughing and making jokes about us. I didn’t even know what ‘gay’ meant, but I felt deep shame, and I decided that it was not okay to open my heart like that to other people.
The day at the treehouse stands out as a milestone on my way to a closed heart. I cared a lot about people as a kid, but it was thousands of events like this that convinced me that it was not safe to wear my heart on my sleeve. I suspect the same process happens to most of us. We learn to protect our heart by closing it, and we develop an inner-critic to prevent us from doing anything that might be viewed as weak and naive. This protection leaves us feeling empty inside, and we can spend the rest of our life trying to fix this empty feeling.