Shame on you! You should know better!
How often have we heard those awful words? Or, seen them, unspoken, real, in another’s eyes? No words, but the clear message: You should be ashamed of yourself! That’s raw hurt: A whip on bare flesh! Your nakedness ridiculed. An humiliating stain for everyone to see. A smell, like that of Cain. After shame you are a different person than before.
Yet all of us live with it. Shame is part of life. Most of the time we connect it to a particular quality about ourselves. We are ashamed of something. Something about us is not quite right: our ignorance, our selfishness, our sexual darkness, our laziness, our loneliness, our past, our poverty, our lack of sophistication, our hidden phobia, our height, our fatness, our complexion, our hair, our birthmark, our smells, our addiction. We are all ashamed of something.
And, after shame, we are a different person, colder, more lacking in trust. Someone once said that we often judge someone to be cold when he or she is only hurt. That is very true and I suspect that, more often than not, the hurt that looks like coldness is shame. Most of the time, when we appear as cold we are only ashamed.
The importance of this should never be understated, not just for psychology but also for spirituality. If we are ever to become whole and spiritual, namely, if we are to take seriously the first words that came out of the mouth of Jesus: “Change your life and believe in the good news”, then the coldness and distrust brought upon us by shame must be overcome. Otherwise we will go through life paranoid and ever somewhat cold.
And change will not be easy. Shame is powerful. Its bite is deep, the scars permanent.
However, while the scars of shame are permanent, they are not necessarily fatal. We are powerfully resilient, capable of living warm and trusting lives, beyond shame. But the power to live beyond, does not lie in some easy fix or cure. As a wise axiom has it: Not everything can be cured or fixed, though it should be named properly. This is critical in the case of shame. It must be properly named.
There is a growing literature today, much of it in popular psychology circles, which tries precisely to do this, to name shame properly. Unfortunately, to my mind, it often does not name it very well. It talks about cultures of shame and religions of shame and, all too quickly, lays much of the blame for shame at the feet of those who insist on duty and on those who are less liberal sexually. We are shamed by too much insistence on duty and we are shamed by our own bodies and our sexual needs in a culture and religion which are too rigid and puritanical. Duty and sexual restraint, in this view, are the culprits. Too much insistence here and you produce a culture of shame.
Whatever the truth of that, it misses the deeper point. Where we are most deeply shamed, and hurt, is not, first of all, because we are made to feel badly on account of some unfulfilled duty or because religion and culture have not given us permission to feel good about sex and our own bodies. No. Long before that, we are shamed at a deeper level. We are shamed in our enthusiasm. We are made to feel guilty, naive, and humiliated about our very pulse for life and about our very trust of each other. Long before we are ever told that sex is bad, or that our body isn’t quite right, or that we have failed in our duty somewhere, we are told that we are bad because we are so trusting and enthusiastic. Trust and enthusiasm are our nakedness, bare flesh.
Remember as a child, the number of times you literally burst with life, how you ran up to somebody, someone you trusted, a parent, a teacher, a friend; completely trusting, full of life, you tried, with a nakedness you can never bring yourself to risk again, to share something you were excited about: a leaf you had found, a drawing you had made, your report card, a story you wanted to tell, a fall you had just taken, something that seemed so important to you, and you were met by a bored, irritated, chastising presence. Remember too how, sometime in your early years, however it happened, how you were made to feel ashamed for spontaneously feeling and believing certain things. Recall how the warmth and trust drained out of you.
Then think, now, how, so many times, people perceive you as being cold when, as you know, you are only hurt.