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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On forgiveness

Toward the end of the third chapter of Noli Me Tangere, Crisostomo Ibarra barely avoids a quarrel with a combative Padre Damaso, and manages to make a hasty exit from the dinner party of Capitan Tiago. As he begins to wander the streets of Manila in the next chapter, he is accosted by an old lieutenant, Señor Guevara, who warns the young man to learn from the example of his deceased father, Don Rafael.  Upon realizing that Crisostomo does not even know that his father died in prison, Guevara endeavors to tell him the details. Among other things, Don Rafael had somehow earned the ire of Padre Damaso: the Franciscan friar accused his former friend of failing to go to confession. Such an accusation meant that the soul of Don Rafael continued to bear the burden of his wrongdoings—that he existed in a state of disgrace, that he had not been forgiven.

Forgiveness tends to be a recurring theme during the holidays, because, whatever else can be said for the shrill décor and the manufactured cheer of the season, family and friends do come together, and in so gathering, each of us is given cause to consider the quality of his or her life in the context of his or her relationships with others, as well as with time. Where interpersonal fractures and burns exist, these intensify, become more deeply felt, and, when coupled with a renewed awareness of mortality—especially keen when one is in the presence of children—may well produce the urge to grant or seek forgiveness, to promote a general healing of divisions, to infuse the word “reunion” with fresh energy and significance.

Guevara then recounts to Crisostomo what Don Rafael once said on the issue of confession: “‘Take this example: if I have killed the father of a family, if I have made of a woman a sorrowing widow and destitute orphans of some happy children, have I satisfied eternal Justice by letting myself be hanged, or by entrusting my secret to one who is obliged to guard it for me, or by giving alms to priests who are least in need of them, or by buying indulgences and lamenting night and day? What of the widow and the orphans? My conscience tells me that I should try to take the place of him whom I killed, that I should dedicate my whole life to the welfare of the family whose misfortunes I caused. But even so, who can replace the love of a husband and a father?'”*

This is not as unorthodox as it may seem at the outset. The Roman Catholic Church itself teaches that while confession leads to absolution, it is penance that satisfies divine justice. Thus, what Don Rafael proposes after his hypothetical murder is that he must undergo penance, albeit in a manner different from what a priest might usually prescribe.

Forgiveness, then, results only in the cessation of hostilities, the repudiation of acrimony, and the restoration of peace between the wrongdoer and the wronged. It does not exempt the offender from responsibility for his or her actions. Rather, forgiveness opens up a space within which the true penitent, liberated from the anger, hate, and bitterness of those who have been wounded, is obligated to mitigate, if not undo, the harm caused, and to ensure, as much as possible, that he or she will no longer inflict harm in any way, shape, or form. Penance, in Catholic theology, functions both as an act of reparation, and as an act of preservation—it is supposed to help prevent the further commission of sins.

Nor does forgiveness excuse the victim from vigilance. Although conventional (un-)wisdom has always posited that forgiving should be followed by forgetting, granting forgiveness does not—should not—mean that one automatically forfeits the right to require meaningful change, when it has yet to take place, or the right to demand justice, when it has yet to be served.

Letting go and moving on from an instance of abuse without a sustained call for restitution or reform is to tread down the path of self-destruction. This kind of uncritical, empty-headed forgiveness rewards the transgressor for his or her evil deeds—in the absence of consequences, he or she can be expected to commit exponentially worse acts. Consider, for instance, how far our ever hardworking and prayerful president has come: from breaking a promise not to run in the 2004 elections, all the way to the unconstitutional imposition of martial law against a monster that she herself created.

In her Christmas message, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo exhorted the country to “remember the lessons that we learned this year”. As we enter a new year, if there is one lesson that we must take with us from the annus horribilis that was 2009, it is this: to forgive is not to forget—not when there is still so much that the current regime has left unaddressed, not when there are still so many wrongs that it has left unredressed.

*This quotation is taken from the Charles Derbyshire translation of Noli Me Tangere, which is entitled The Social Cancer.

[This also appears in Filipino Voices.]