"Nothing closes ears, minds and hearts faster than shame." So wrote heartinsanfrancisco in response to a comment I left yesterday on her blog--the one with the delicious title, "Guilty With an Explanation." She had written about one of those brief encounters where her own moral values had been put on the spot by the prejudice of a stranger, the kind of situation where you're left speechless--and remorseful that you lack words to express your outrage in the face of sheer, blind, unforgivable and ignorant bias.
She's right, of course. I was writing yesterday about vengeance, which seems to me to belong somewhere in the same category of violence, or violation. To put a stranger to shame in such a circumstance is to indulge in a kind of vengeance. It's an abuse of power--if the presumption of my own righteousness is a form of power. It teaches nothing, since shame overwhelms the listener and, yes, closes the ears, mind and heart to anything but the afterburn. It might give me a momentary satisfaction, but is sure to leave a bad taste in my mouth. It's a pyrrhic victory, at best.
I've heard a useful distinction between shame and guilt: you feel guilty for something you have done; you feel shame for who you are. I have experienced both in the course of my life, and if I accept this definition, I believe that shame is worse. I can use my faculties of reason to get past guilt, by either accepting or rejecting responsibility for the action that provoked it. I can even be guilty "with an explanation"! But shame goes deeper than action, into the very core of who I am. Once I become aware of it, it hurts, and keeps on hurting until I find a way to accept what it is that shames me and learn to be with the truth about myself in more compassionate way.
With regard to heartinsanfrancisco's situation, I might feel guilty for having spoken unkind words; I'd feel shame for that part of me that needed to shame another person for her words.
But this is just the beginning of a huge discussion. The terms are still a little blurred, I feel. I'd be interested to hear what others think, and what their own experiences might be.
That's how I see it, anyway. Thanks to heartinsanfrancisco for bringing all these thoughts to mind.