The Power and Beauty of Shame

Shame is a variety of mental pain. The 1828 edition of Webster (still the best in terms of concision and clarity) says shame is “a painful sensation excited by a consciousness of guilt, or of having done something which injures reputation; or by that which nature or modesty prompts us to conceal. Shame is particularly excited by the disclosure of actions which, in the view of men, are mean and degrading.” As usual, Mr. Webster hits the nail precisely upon its head.

We often think of shame as being excited by guilt, but that is not often the case. More often, we feel shame because we have accidentally, instinctively, or inadvertently exposed some part of our personality or body we would strongly prefer to keep covered. It is some part of us that we ourselves do not like very much and are embarrassed to have exposed to the view of others. 

The fact that shame is not often the result of actual guilt is revealed by the following scenario: imagine yourself taking the commuter train to work one morning, on a typical day like any other. On this particular morning, however, an evil magician has decided to abuse you. He does so by suddenly and magically making all your clothing disappear, in full sight of all the other commuters. How do you react? Instinctively you shrink into your seat and try desperately to cover yourself with whatever comes to hand: a newspaper, a cushion, a book, the scarf dangling from the neck of your neighbor – anything at all. You are experiencing the “mental pain” of shame. Are you guilty? Have you done anything of which you could be accused? Of course not. You are entirely innocent of any charge. And yet there you are, writhing in the throes of shame. This is Webster’s “painful sensation excited by…that which nature or modesty prompts us to conceal.” 

Or consider a general who has made, assiduously, every possible preparation for an upcoming battle.  His forces lose the encounter and are put to rout. The general is ashamed and disgraced (“disgrace” is a synonym for “shame”). He is not guilty of anything, as far as reason can determine: he has left no alternative unconsidered and has left no stone unturned. Perhaps unforeseeable elements entered the battlefield; perhaps his soldiers were subject to an unaccountable panic. Whatever the circumstances, a candid review of them tells us that the unfortunate general cannot be blamed. Nevertheless, he feels an agonizing and acute sense of shame in the presence of his peers.

So we know that shame is not always the byproduct of wrong behavior. We are not to look for the heart of the concept of shame in guilt. Instead, I believe the clue to its “heart” is found in Webster’s phrase: “the disclosure of actions which, in the view of men, are mean and degrading.” Mean and degrading. Here is the conceptual root of the issue. Human beings are capable of doing things that lessen their “value” as human beings – at least in the eyes of other people. We can debase ourselves. If a highly prized article of furniture – antique and precious in the eyes of experts – suffers damage in such a way that it loses some of its solid gold gilding, it is said to have been debased. And by “debased,” we mean (again, in words from 1828): “reduced in estimated rank; lowered in estimation; reduced in purity, fineness, quality or value; adulterated; degraded.” The piece of furniture is, sadly, no longer what it once was.

This is what we do to ourselves when we act in a “mean” fashion: when we are tightfisted, unyielding, narrow-minded, flinty-hearted. We lose some of our gilt edging. Our “stock value” in the eyes of others is lowered. We are not, sadly, what we once were as human beings, because it appears we have suffered some sort of “damage,” whether in or post utero. And it is the kind of damage that lowers the shameful one from that high standard of goodness we are all unconsciously carrying around. When we see a hardhearted miser, we know without thinking about it that he is less than our ideal of a man. 

Looking only at the territory we have covered so far, we can see how important this idea of shame is.  Any emotion or psychological faculty that causes us to suffer mental pain when we debase ourselves is valuable. Yet we are not in the habit of thinking well of shame. We deride the very concept. Society warns individuals not to “shame” anyone, and to be publicly shamed seems to be the ultimate psychological penalty.

Now of course shame is undoubtedly negative, if for no other reason than that it summons up mental pain. But the uses of shame are legion, even if they are unacknowledged and shied away from by our contemporaries. Because of our paradoxical human position in a Venn diagram between and including the angelic and the demonic, there are things in life which are both sadly unpleasant and utterly needful. Things we cannot do without, even though we may loathe them and try to avoid them. Shame is one of those things: it is the skeleton at the banquet no one wishes to sit next to, but which makes the banquet possible. (You cannot talk about societal glue without talking about public shame.) Shame is a ghastly apparition we recoil from when we are threatened with his embrace, but it approaches us with a sweet and brotherly aim. Mr. Shame wishes only to take our hand in his icy fingers, and say to us: “Now you know, sir [or ma’am, or miss], you have not been your best – you have not behaved up to the very highest standard. You have lost a trace of your beautiful gilt finish, and that grieves me. It should bother you, too, and that is why I am freezing – for just a moment – a small portion of your heart.”

Or, if we have merely lost our clothes at the hands of a wicked wizard, Shame will awkwardly remind us that clothing is a sop to our lost innocence, and that a fallen nature prompts us to conceal what we may no longer display.      

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Clark Elder Morrow

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Clark Elder Morrow is a published poet and essayist who for ten years was a monthly columnist for Robert Hartwell Fisk’s website The Vocabula Review. He is a nationwide speaker on youth and media issues, and is based in Southern California. He is also an award-winning professional actor.

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