To the lonely and the shamed who have stood in the darkness of a cold stairwell not wanting to go up or down or afraid to emerge from the solitary place, you are not alone. We all have been there at some point and some of us are still there. We avoid people and dodge accusing eyes. There is depth to the pain of shame that reaches deep into our core. Shame is beyond reflection on specific behavior and more private than disgrace. It’s an indictment on the self. It consumes the humanity in a person and brings out the worst in us at the moment we are weakest. Our empathy dissolves into self-pity. Altruism evolves into anger, blame, and transference of shame.
And there’s no easy way out. Of course there’s the potent pill or the blessed booze that offers a brief reprieve from the pain before dragging the tortured soul deeper into shame. For those who choose to endure with the drooped head and slouched posture, there’s isolation, depression, and the ultimate moment when the mind defeats the person.
But the most disgusting thing about shame is not that we feel it, although for anyone who wakes up every day wanting only to crawl into a cave and expire, it truly is awful. What is horrific is that at a societal level, we induce it in others by the way we assign shame-inducing labels, by the way we treat the people who we deem to be below us, or by the way we make snap judgments on character based on skin color, nationality, tattoos, or body size.
No one understands the pain of shame as deeply as the child humiliated for an error and compared to a dog, or a wife belittled and battered for questioning her husband, or an unwed mother who needs the government check and is not lazy, or the person who is taunted and called a fag but is not gay, or the person who is taunted and called a fag and is gay, or the felon applying for a job knowing a background check will immediately disqualify him. The list could go on.
And there are some who feel certain people deserve shame. Judges might expect it from convicted criminals. Family members expect it from a loved one who has fallen off the wagon. There are those who believe some ought to be shamed for their religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or residency status. It’s easy to draw a justification. Shouldn’t a criminal feel shame for a crime committed? Or an addict for destroying their family with their addiction? Or a Guatemalan for crossing our borders illegally…and not speaking English?
If someone truly has transgressed, we should focus on the transgression and spare the man. Allow a guilty person to feel guilt, accept it, and work to make amends. By inducing shame in others, we are actually breeding recurrence of bad behavior because a man who has nothing has nothing to lose.
No one deserves shame.
But this is to the people who feel shame, those who are stuck in the dark stairwell and who feel alone. Shame feels very public and sometimes we do bare the scarlet letter. In reality, however, shame is a prison we build for ourselves. Managing shame is about letting go. It’s about accepting what we’ve done and who we are. It’s not shying away from guilt when we’ve erred, but it’s also acknowledging that we are not forever defined by a single behavior.
If shame is the prison, then pride is the key to freedom. It’s not that we should think that we are inherently exceptional. Perhaps more dangerous than a shamed person is the eternally proud one, the narcissist. Pride is something we are not born with or that we are entitled to. Every day it must be earned by actions, even if they seem small in the grand scheme of life. But every day offers an opportunity to do that thing, that mutually beneficial deed that elevates the perception of self. Civic pride. Perhaps a good place to start is looking to the lonely and the shamed and reminding them that they are not alone and that shame doesn’t need to endure.