Shame is one of the most human emotions. It’s that feeling of your face getting hot and your heart beating fast when you cross an invisible line of acceptable behavior. Shame is your soul letting you know that you are walking on the sacred ground of someone else’s dignity. Because it’s one of the worst feelings, we will do much to avoid shame. We will blame others, justify our behavior or deny what others say they saw.
We have seen public figures on television swallow their shame, pushing it down and distracting us from it. We have heard parents warn their children of a “litigious society” and how easily one can fall prey to “false accusations” rather than warning them of the consequences of infringing on another person’s bodily autonomy without their consent. In turn, we are more comfortable “not judging” the private actions of others. When former President Clinton was accused of leveraging his power and position in order to have an inappropriate sexual relationship, he avoided the rocky shoals of truth by filling his sails with a whirlwind of creative language. Once grounded and there was no more game of avoidance to be played, his supporters responded that it was a private affair between him and his wife. Recently, when asked about President Trump’s own admission to groping women as well as the existence of a number of female accusers, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded by saying “The American people knew this and voted for the president, and we feel like we’re ready to move forward.” Culturally, shame can be forgotten for political or financial success or be swept under the rug for talent. America loves a winner and victory is often the second act that overcomes and erases the first.
But, though it’s not something we should seek to do to others, when we feel it because of something we did, shame should be welcomed. We might think of it as a close cousin to the relief felt when waking up from a nightmare: Shame reminds us that we are still alive. Shame reminds me that I exist as a precious and unique soul precisely because I know and feel that #youtoo exist. Our freedom is not what excuses us from this but that which enables us to take responsibility for feeling it most authentically.
We are born with the capacity for shame, but only society can help us to feel it through the articulation of values and norms. In Hebrew the word “conscience” and “compass” are from the same root. Our compass only works if there is moral gravity to guide it.
And guiding it requires that we differentiate the feeling of shame from humiliation. Physical pain is a way for our bodies to tell us that something is wrong. Before we try to numb ourselves from pain we should always try to understand the message our body is sending. Moving too quickly past a feeling like shame would be a wasted opportunity to cultivate moral beings.
Shame can be carefully nurtured with the watering of accountability and forgiveness but be overwhelmed with the flooding of public humiliation. Instead of society responding with humiliation, we have to instill the ethic that to truly be human is to feel shame and it’s a shame not to be human.
We have to help our children, our public figures and each other understand that though no one likes to feel shame, it’s a good thing and we should welcome it as a way of preventing us from doing even worse than we have already done to other people. Our American culture needs this moral language now.