A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
I have been thinking about some of the news stories from Southeastern Wisconsin since the New Year, and while doing so I suddenly thought back to words I will never forget:
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself".
I can still hear the rebuke, more painful than any physical punishment he might have dispensed.
It was during my High School years, and my Dad said this to me after learning of a particularly regrettable episode of my behavior. More than any individual I have known, he was able to hold in harmony the seemingly incompatible dynamics of justice and mercy. He never let the sun go down on his anger, and before that day ended, he connected with me in a way that left me whole and reassured.
His words hurt so much not because they were a condemnation, but because they were accurate. He didn't have a harsh or demeaning bone in his body; he was simply sharing with me what he felt was the appropriate response to my behavior, and letting me know that he expected better of me. The result of his comment was not a disfigurement or scarring of my psyche. Rather, it was a resolve to conduct myself in such a manner that he would never have cause to repeat it.
A few weeks ago I posted a column entitled The Abolition of Consequence (see link below). Today I write about the abolition of shame.
We have banished shame from our lexicon. WHY?
Is it because we live in such progressive times that we have outgrown such antiquated notions? And if our number one goal is to build people up and to make them feel good about themelves, how can we tolerate such a "negative" emotion? But as I recall that episode, the remorse I felt, while painful in the immediate, ultimately led to some honest introspection and improved conduct, or at least I like to think it did.
Certainly there are countless experiences where shame is an utterly innapropriate response, and much inexcusable and horrific damage can be caused through its irresponsible application. But I think we would all agree that we don't need to look very far today for examples of shameful behavior, and we wonder how we arrived at such a point of cultural meltdown. In light of that, I pose this question:
If the act of feeling shame is the appropriate response to behavior that is in fact shameful, can it be legitimate and ultimately efficacious to experience it? And if we acknolwedge that we are ALL capable of behavior that is shameful, is it not a pedal-brake for our own actions as well?
I hope that my son never repeats what I did that time in High School.
But if he does, I hope I have the courage to do say to him what my Dad said to me.