The sense of shame

The near-universal celebration of the beginning of another Gregorian calendar year is charged with the prospect of living one’s life over—a prospect both tantalizing and dangerous. I do not wish to argue against submission to the rigors of self-recreation or the enjoyment of its resultant pleasures; instead, I would like to underscore that each of our lives consists of inextricable, sometimes invisible, connections to various others, human or otherwise, which the idea of beginning again tends, in all its attractiveness, to obscure.

That the Roman god after whom this month is named has two heads, one gazing into the past and the other into the future, should serve as a potent reminder that while the “new” year could indeed be a doorway into a space of different possibilities, one cannot simply step outside or transcend the flow of history to start from absolute zero. One cannot, at the midnight stroke of the clock, discard what had come before and exempt oneself from responsibility over previous words and deeds.

Of particular concern to me in this season of aspiring toward renewal are the stock exhortations to forgive and forget, to let go and move on—I refer here specifically to life-changing harm that is inflicted on the level of the personal and in the realm of the everyday, harm that falls outside the ambit of our legal system. Such sentiments are not, perhaps, entirely objectionable, but a milieu that conceives of the act of pardon as a reflex response is morally bankrupt. Not only does it breed a sense of entitlement in those who wound others—which would be all of us, at one point or another—but also it cultivates a culture of impunity within which the heart is stripped of the ability to feel and relationships are drained of value.

Forgiveness should not be granted without conditions, for if we fail to require that the offender muster the courage, the honor, and the decency to redress the hurt that he or she has caused, we secure for ourselves a well-deserved future of further and deeper injury. Ought not the wrongdoer first demonstrate that he or she deserves to be forgiven?

Let this not be mistaken as an endorsement of mere confession, which, even—perhaps especially—in the sacramental sense, is little different from the sort of narcissistic self-display that is encouraged, nay, clamored for, in increasingly absurd degrees by contemporary life: the act of exposing oneself as having inflicted damage against another is to state the obvious. Wallowing in the mud of one’s transgressions is a variant of masturbating in public and should be dealt with accordingly. It is not, however purportedly brave or risky, the same as apologizing and making amends. Nor do I advocate vindictiveness or the holding of grudges on the part of the offended—I suggest, rather, that it is possible to move past the hurt and live well without holding the offender free of accountability.

The remarks of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu are illuminating in this regard. In Kerry Kennedy’s Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders That Are Changing Our World, the retired cleric says that forgiveness does not involve pretending that things are other than they are, or trying to paper over the cracks. Bygones, he points out, will not just be bygones, for such have an incredible capacity for always returning to haunt. Instead, forgiveness means that the wronged and the culprits of those wrongs acknowledge that something has happened—that both recognize that ghastliness has occurred. I would add that the perpetrator should be prepared to accept that forgiveness is not deliverable upon demand, that certain acts admit of no reparation, though that does not, of course, justify refusing to try.

While brooding over a botched mastectomy, Handel, a priest and surgeon in Jeanette Winterson’s Art & Lies, observes that it is unusual for Catholics to feel shame. The ticket, rather, is guilt, which, if a distressing state of mind, is easily remedied, expiated via its articulation in the confessional. He then proposes that shame comes from a different, older moral sense—one where the wrongdoer fears not punishment, either in this or the next world, but the shrinking up of self, the loss that is charged to the soul for every small, mean, dirty, or stupid act: “If I cheat another, I cheat myself out of the person that I could be. If I wound another, I will eventually find the cut recalled to my own heart. There is no appropriate confession, only the will not to fail again so readily, perhaps because while failure can be forgiven it cannot be excused.”

If the foregoing account of the roots of shame is primarily speculative, that is no reason to dismiss the standards it sets for human behavior. We may no longer care very much about our souls, and the days of the pillory and the scarlet letter may be long behind us—all to the good—but should we lose the capacity for shame, we would also lose the capacity for compassion, which, to return the word to its origins, entails suffering with another. Our very existence, as Delirium tells her brother Dream in Neil Gaiman’s The Kindly Ones, deforms the universe, and I fear the sort of beings we would become if we could not enter into the pain of others and be impelled to alleviate it as best as we can, to be ashamed about and atone for our role in the damage, disfigurement, or degradation that has been wrought.

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