Sexuality, Shame and 'The Heart of Man'
An interview with William Paul Young about the new film.
Author William Paul Young knows about the power of confession.
Decades ago, he confessed to infidelity and sought counseling to save his marriage. He recounts the story in the new film The Heart of Man, which is in theaters this evening.
The film explores the dangers of harboring sexual shame and the freedom of getting help.
We recently spoke with William Paul Young about his story, and the powerful message of the film.
Well tell me a little bit about how you first became involved with the film.
It really originates with Tony Anderson who is one of the executive producers and he’s also featured. It’s a docu-drama, so it’s wrapping the prodigal son story into a larger conversation about our sexuality, about our sonship as men and women in relationship with God.
And Tony had hit a real crisis point in his real life and he had found someone, a therapist that he could work with. And it’s out of that process of healing that The Heart of Man was birthed.
As [he] walked Tony through a journey and Tony began to say, “There’s got to be a place to open up this conversation, because the things that are not being talked about are killing us as a culture and then as individual human beings.”
The film deals with a lot of issues as it pertains to sexuality and issues of shame and embarrassment and guilt that come along with that. Why do you think shame, particularly within the church, is so often associated with these types of issues?
I think human sexuality has been a subject that has been kept under wraps as it were. I also think the Church has not been good about having open conversations, because there’s such a sense of perfectionist performance that we’ve turned the Gospel into some form of moralism or behavioral perfectionism.
So everybody begins with shame and shame always drives you to isolation. So if you look to the places where there are the most secrets, you’re going to find the deepest levels of shame. And I think religion, generally speaking, engenders cultures that keep the most secrets and actually empowers shame. So you don’t want to expose yourself, because you’re just going to feel a compounded shame so you learn to live with your shame, and your behaviors all covered up.
Then the presentation of transformation is all self-discipline and behaviorism, and we get stuck in a cycle.
Exposure of our secrets and exposure of our inside world becomes the path toward transformation. I’m one that’s convinced the whole process of healing is not so much becoming something that you weren’t, but uncovering the truth of who you’ve been from the beginning. And that’s where shame has such a stronghold in so many of our lives. We just don’t want face-to-face relationships and don’t want the risk of opening up this conversation, because we think with our exposure will come our exclusion.
And here you’ve got a masterfully-done, cinematically opening of a door into a conversation that’s authentic, real and safe. It just says, “OK, here is one of the next steps we need to take as humanity.” Especially those that are in the religious community.
We’ve got to learn to come out of hiding and let the light begin to transform the ways that we think about ourselves, the ways that we think about what it means to be human, which includes our sexuality.
A lot of people, particularly Christians that may be in positions of leadership or positions where other people look to them as role models, whether in church or in their job or just in their families, kind of justify keeping secrets as, “I don’t want to expose other people who may be hurt by what I’ve done,” or “I don’t want to damage anyone else’s hope,” but tell me a little bit about the spiritual consequences of holding these kinds of secrets and not letting them come into the light.
Well for me, spiritual consequences and relational consequences are the same thing.
There’s a full integration in our humanity, so it’s not like we divvy up the parts of the human being in order to understand that everything we participate in has consequences.
The ripple effect of secrets is profound.
With what I’ve gone through in terms of my own exposure, which was a severe mercy. It was the hardest form of grace. I think that God is behind exposure simply because it opens the possibility of healing.
But in my own life I needed to tell who I’m married to every secret I had even though it pretty much destroyed her in the process, and it took us 11 years to heal. But we healed, and if you maintain secrets, in terms of the most intimate relationships that you have, at some point those secrets will be shouted from the rooftop. And they will always endanger the ability of those who are involved in the relationship to trust.
If you don’t come clean in that process and not hold back, those things eventually will betray again.
For someone that has a secret or something that they feel like they need to come clean on but they are just too afraid of what the repercussions are and that they feel is just easier if they just deal with this between them and God, what would your encouragement to them be to overcome that fear?
You’ve got to involve another human being who has skin on.
We would love God to heal us without anyone finding out about it. But if the only safe person is a therapist then start there.
But you’ve got to let somebody in this, because you need to see in the eyes of another human being that you’re not the disgusting piece of crap that you think you are. And then with the exposure of the inside into the light, there is an unbelievable possibility and opening up to wholeness that would not occur otherwise.
We are not designed to do this alone. We’re made in the image and likeness of a God that’s never been alone. So aloneness is where secrets drive you and shame drives you to isolation. So you’re going to need to find the courage to go the other direction.
When my world blew up, I was exposed to all sorts of people, but I needed help, and so I pulled the Yellow Pages off the shelf and looked under counselors and started with the A’s until I found something that looked like it might resonate. And I sat in front of them for the first time in my life and said “Can you help me?” Because for me it was either change or die.
Tell me about what it was like to speak to a therapist and speak to someone and kind of experience the freedom of being able to vocalize.
When you hit the bottom like I did you don’t believe you’re smarter than anybody. You don’t have that defense mechanism. You’re totally exposed. And I just said “You know what, I don’t trust myself in this process to think that I’m smarter than anybody, so I’m not leaving until you tell me I’m done.” And he said OK. And we worked hard.
So 11 years—11 years for Kim and I to heal. 11 years for me to feel fine with I’ve become as a whole person. I’m not perfect, but I’m a whole person.