Merriam-Webster defines shame like this:
- “A painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming or impropriety.
- “The susceptibility to such emotion.”
- “A condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute.”
- “Something that brings censure or reproach. Something to be regretted.”
- “To bring shame, to disgrace.”
- “To put to shame by outdoing.”
- “To cause to feel shame.”
- “To force by causing to feel guilty.”
We’ve all felt it. We’ve all induced it in others, and likely far more often in ourselves. Shame.
Some might say there’s too much of it, and perhaps for some there is, and others could (and often do) say with the condition of things, particularly in the public square, there should be more. They’re both right…and wrong.
We’re not one-size fits all. Haven’t ever been, won’t ever be. As much as some want to homogenize us and stuff us into a specific box to make their control of us easier, it’ll never work. Why? Because we’re all hand-crafted originals with specific strengths and weaknesses and each of us are different levels of enlightenment. In other words, we aren’t clones. I’m not even sure clones could be homogenized and boxed in a one-size fits all package.
Is shame then useless? A bad thing?
Actually, it’s like most other things: helpful if not inappropriately used or implemented. A clear understanding of shame can spare worst hurts on future events we’ll eventually encounter.
As a child, I of course knew never to steal. It was wrong. It was an offense to the person you steal from, to your parents, family, and in a huge way, to yourself. In stealing you prove you can’t be trusted. You aren’t honest. You do not respect what belongs to you or to others.
My mother and I went to the grocery store. I really wanted a piece of bubble gum. There was a huge jar of it in bright yellow wrappers on the counter. I asked, and my mother said no. So, long story short, I took the gum.
Later, my mother saw me chewing the gum. She got that face. You know the one I mean. The You are in deep and serious troubleface. I figured I’d get restriction for sure, but I never could have expected what she did do—and it was a thousand times worse.
She hauled me back to the store where I had to admit to the owner what I’d done, pay him for the gum, and give back the unchewed second piece I’d taken.
The owner took the money and the returned gum. He was sober and serious, of course, but the disappointment in his eyes is what I remember most all these years later. He said, “I trust we won’t have to worry about you stealing again.”
You know how you think, “I wish the floor would open and swallow me?” That was me, right then. I was humiliated, embarrassed, mortified, and ashamed. If disgrace could kill, I’d have been DOA that very second.
On the walk home, I took a typically immature response. I was angry with God, who was supposed to be merciful, because I didn’t die of shame and melt through the floor and escape. No, I had to live with the consequences of my actions. That took a little longer to accept—it was all on me. But I was afforded the opportunity to become well acquainted with the concept of personal responsibility when my dad got home from work and we had a kitchen table conference. Translated: we had a deep and serious discussion about my transgression.
All these years later, I don’t recall whether or not there was restriction, though I’m supposing there was. But boy do I remember that discussion and the disappointment in my dad that his daughter was a thief.
I also recall apologizing to my folks and promising I wouldn’t steal again. After that day and evening, I knew that promise would be one easy to keep. I neverwanted to experience anything like this again!
Now, some of you might think that my folks overreacted to a kid stealing a couple pieces of gum. They didn’t. In that discussion, I had to see this event from the store owner’s eyes. Customers robbing him blind. Him trying to make a living and feed his family (who happened to live directly across the street from us)! I had to see this from my mother’s eyes. The humiliation she suffered in dragging a child she was raising back to a store to confess. Had she been a lousy mom? What hadn’t she done that she should have? My dad’s eyes. I work so hard to provide and come home to this? And my own. Lord, I guess I had to go through all this to get the message to never touch things that don’t belong to me again.
The lesson wasn’t easy. It was devastating. It was all the things Merriam-Webster describes. On steroids. Because while I was a kid, I did know better, and I deliberately and willfully did what I wanted to do anyway.
But I learned a lot of lessons that day that have served me well in the whole of my life. And as hard a lesson as that was, it was magnificent, too. Many times in the intervening years, I’ve had situations arise to tempt me. Being given too much change at the check-out. Leaving the store and finding an item still in the cart. Do you think even for a second, I hesitate to go back? Not for a nanosecond.
I learned more subtle lessons, too. About not putting expectations on other people’s wallets. About doing things in ways that don’t injure personal pride. About reserving judgment on other kids and other parents. We truly don’t know what others’ lives are really like. No matter how much we think we do. We don’t know what lessons are being taught or learned.
The principles apply to the smallest of thing, like the chewing gum, and to the greatest things, like national immigration.
People storming our border do not respect our laws, our land, or our ownership. That’s a problem. It’s not doing things the right way. Doing things the right way assures us individuals are more apt to be productive citizens. In storming borders, they are not invited guests. We didn’t send for them. They are invading, forcing themselves upon us. Same principle at work.
I realize that truth won’t be popular with some, but like it or not, truth is truth. Consider a perspective shift, see the situation through different eyes. We have been paying the countries these folks are coming from foreign aid to help them take care of their own people at home. They take the money, keep the money, and many of the people come here anyway. And here, they are fed, housed, and subsidized, so we’re paying for their aid a second time. Why should we pay for them twice? We reach out in good faith to aid, but twice? That’s not sensible…or fair to the people of our own country who would benefit from a little aid but can’t get it because it’s going to uninvited guests.
Why is there no shame on that?
I’m guessing when they were kids, their folks didn’t drag them back to the store to pay for the gum and make them give the gum back.
Yes, it was a hard, uncomfortable lesson. But it was well worth learning…
Thanks for sticking up for appropriate feelings of shame and remorse, Vicki. An appropriate sense of shame is essential to a good conscience. Yes, many people are held down by an inappropriate, neurotic sense of guilt and shame over wrongs that have long ago been forgiven, and that’s tragic. But feelings of shame when one has committed shameful acts can help build good character and a moral society. —J.D.
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Appreciate your comment, Jim. Thanks. As I look around, I see way too much of the “do whatever you can get away with doing” and far too little of the personal responsibility accepted. I think that weakens us as a society, and I know it weakens us as people of character. This is a time when we desperately need to know where we stand and why. We really need character and solid foundations.