Although the experience of shame is universal, it is difficult to define. We can rightly distinguish shame from guilt – shame has to do with what I am, guilt with what I have done – but we are still left to wonder what shame is. The cause of shame and its cure is, by its very nature, hidden. (The root of the Old English word shame means “to cover.”)
We are profoundly more aware of the negative consequences of shame than were our parents and grandparents. We know that shame is toxic. It distorts our reason and transforms our moods. We hide from its pain in destructive behaviors that mar our self-image and destroy our relationships. This in turn reinforces the shame and starts spinning the cycle all over again.
When people are controlled – often without their knowledge – by shame, they manifest any of a number of common behaviors. They may exercise rigid control over their environment, fly into a rage, develop perfectionistic tendencies, procrastinate, or fall into addiction. They exaggerate both their successes and failures and live forever on the borders of deceit.
Recognizing that shame is toxic, modern society has taken steps to “de-shame” many of the behaviors that made our parents and grandparents blush. Today, for example, adultery has become a “low-shame” behavior. Just consider former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, whose adultery and dishonesty cost him his office but who has made a stunning comeback by running for, and winning, a congressional district seat.
Two years ago Congressman Anthony Weiner was driven from public office after being caught “sexting,” But this week The Huffington Post reported that he is the frontrunner for the office of New York City mayor. At one time his actions would have made him a political pariah, but in a culture that has largely “de-shamed” any and all sexual behavior, the stigma has faded.
Some conduct remains culturally shameful – just ask Paula Dean. The use of racial or sexual orientation slurs still make society stand up and say, “Shame on you!” But that’s about it, and one wonders how long it will be before even these behaviors are practiced without shame.
Am I suggesting that shame really isn’t such a bad thing, or that using shame to control people’s behaviors might be appropriate after all?
Not in the least. Shame is harmful and must be dealt with if a person is to enjoy a meaningful and productive life. But our wholesale de-shaming of behaviors will prove an ineffective way of dealing with the problem, because shame – unlike guilt – is not a product of behavior. Whereas guilt says, “I am wrong because I have done this,” shame says, “I have done this because I am wrong.”
If this is true, our culture’s well-intentioned attempts to eliminate shame by surgically deadening our moral nerves is profoundly misguided. It is the ethical equivalent of performing a lobotomy to relieve a headache.
The Bible teaches that the ultimate cause of shame is spiritual, not psychological. It is rooted in humanity’s dislocation from God and can only be cured by a life-giving connection with God and a life-sharing connection with people.
The Bible begins with a man and woman completely free of shame, a state that we can now only imagine. By their own choice they became estranged from God and, in so doing, were left defenseless against shame. It became a constant and bitter part of the human experience. But God has promised to liberate humanity from the burden of shame – a promise that certainly means more than any of us can now comprehend.
Published first in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, June 29, 2013