Thursday, July 10, 2008


"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.


roger said...

i like your discussion. i did find several definitions of shame or guilt that conflated the two.

about speaking up in public in the face of a comment like the one hearts relates....i do agree that speaking down to the offender is likely to be counter productive, and ultimately bad for me. but i also seek to find a way to indicate that i disagree with the view expressed. not an easy task to be sure. and i more often feel guilty for my lack of speaking up in some way. several of the commenters there offered soft replies, not rejoinders, which politely expressed not condemnation but perhaps just a different view.

would that i could be so quick minded in such situations.

my birthday is aug 3. best wishes to you should i forget on the 1st.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Wow, Peter. Throw you the ball and you run with it.

Thank you for putting the kindest possible spin on my little dilemma. Life seems to be made up of such dilemmas, most of them small in themselves but as we navigate each one, we clarify in our own minds what we really believe.

Sometimes that has to be enough because as you and I agree, causing another pain does not change his views but does move us backward to a place where we, too, feel shame.

The distinctions you make between guilt and shame are important ones. I also believe that guilt can be more easily overcome with right action in the future while shame shows us who we are (or perceive ourselves to be) and seems like a more permanent condition. In fact, too many guilty acts can make us a person who feels shame, and it becomes much harder to re-form (and forgive) ourselves.

I was once married to a man who criticized everything I did. When I finally left, I told him that if he had accepted me the way I was, I could have become so much more. He didn't get it but I am convinced that acceptance is the only way to influence people's hearts and minds.

This is a very long comment, but then I'm guilty with an explanation. :)

PeterAtLarge said...

Roger--yes, the quick mind is what we all aspire to, and seldom achieve! As I'm sure others do, I stay awake at night coming up with the perfect response(s) to such occasions, Not to mention to perceived insults... Ah, well.

And Heart..., yes, too, when some one tosses me a good one! Thanks for the thoughtful response, and for coming from... the heart!