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Shame!

July 5, 2010

My sister-in-law scolds her Springer spaniels with the word “Shame!” The dogs recognize the word, but it doesn’t seem to instill in them anything like painful regret inherent in the idea of “shame.”

I can’t blame the dogs. I’m a little lost myself about the word, reading definitions of “shame,” “remorse,” “regret,” “guilt,” and trying to understand how the word is understood and used in the book “Reverence: renewing a forgotten virtue” by Paul Woodruff.

The author discusses reverence but won’t give us a definition, although for good reason. Instead, he offers a “schema”:

“Reverence is the well-developed capacity to have feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have.”

The discussion is interesting and often satisfyingly subtle, but it was “shame” that surprised me and kept me reading. I couldn’t see how this feeling is necessary for reverence.

I still don’t, and it’s a semantic matter. The author doesn’t clarify his distinction between some important words. At one point, he says:

“Shame is different from guilt. Perhaps we would be better off if we could live without feelings of guilt; but feelings of shame, and the fear of shame, push us to live better and be better people. Life without shame would be a disaster.”

The way I shade the meanings of these words, I would have said the opposite: that we would be better off without feelings of shame.

I think of guilt as a more factually based feeling—self-reproach for wrong-doing. Shame is defined as “A painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace.”

One with the capacity for reverence may well feel shame on some occasion, but the capacity to feel shame doesn’t strike me as necessary for reverence.

Shame can be a crippling emotion. A more skillful response to one’s imperfections might be to see them clearly, note feelings of guilt, resolve to do better next time, and possibly make amends.

Hanging one’s head in shame and, worse, living in further fear of shame, strike me as possibly irreverent.

The author’s caveat about reverence—having feelings of shame, etc., when they are the right feelings to have—is important. He clearly makes the point that feelings of respect or awe, for example, can easily be felt for wrong things.

So too for shame, but shame can infect a person’s outlook and overwhelm more appropriate feelings.

It would be nice if the people who throw garbage in the streets around Alpine Park would feel shame, and then the fear of shame, and thus stop doing it.

Better yet if they recognized their wrong-doing, felt remorse, resolved to stop doing it, and came back and cleaned up their mess.

The author argues that reverence is a virtue and thus something larger than the cultural behaviors that express it. He takes many examples from ancient Greece and Confucian China … and some from a wonderful Philip Larkin poem.

The ancient cultures were particularly concerned with reverence as a necessary virtue among powerful leaders, and I was reminded of a question asked at a meditation retreat.

It happened to be Buddhist meditation, so the question pertained to the Buddhist intention to abstain from harming sentient beings.

“What is a sentient being?”

There are many answers, and of course practical limits, but Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253) provided my favorite response: treat all things as sentient beings.

Imagine living in a world in which we cared for each thing around us: a cup, a spoon, a door. Such care might spill over into how we listen and speak. Marvelous things might happen.

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