Shame is unfashionable these days, and not only with the formerly devout who are trying to heal. New Age gurus and pop psychologists will say, “Shame on you for indulging in shame!” Shame makes you feel bad about yourself, and we believe that low self-esteem blunts initiative, courage and performance, so never feel bad about yourself.
Well, I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. There are things I have done in my life that I call “wincers” — things that hurt other people… things I will never be able to forget, and never be able to remember without wincing with shame. Things I never want to, and am determined not to, do again — and my best protection against a repeat performance is that shame… that wince. Deserved shame is my ally in self-improvement.
Let’s take an example: racism. Old white men like me often complain that they shouldn’t have to feel guilty about events that took place before they were born, or someplace where they have never been, or that they simply didn’t do. But I doubt that there are any who have not, at some point in their lives, made a remark or a choice or an action that is (or ought to be) a wincer for them. I know I have, and they are painful to remember. I hope they will remain painful to remember, and that I will never forget them, because otherwise I might inadvertently do it again out of ignorance or obliviousness.
Speaking of ignorance and obliviousness, I note that a substantial fraction of my racist wincers were the result of not having thought carefully enough about what I was about to say or do before I said or did it. I didn’t mean to be inconsiderate, I just was. If I had imagined the implications of my actions beforehand, I might have saved myself some winces. More importantly, I might have saved others the hurt that I inflicted.
If that’s so, then perhaps there are many more potentially hurtful words or actions that we need to imagine the consequences of in advance… maybe there are even inactions that we are all not doing but which can be as hurtful as those thoughtless actions we do wince about. If a blatantly racist jerk insults a black woman on a crowded bus and no one challenges the jerk, which is the more hurtful insult — the jerk’s remarks or the fact that no one challenged them? Systemic racism requires your inaction.
As we learn, we grow. Cherish your shame. Learn from it. Grow a bigger heart and a better soul.