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January 21, 2011

Come Back, Shame, Come Back!

Some things you must always be unable to bear. Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame. No matter how young you are or how old you have got. Not for kudos and not for cash. Your picture in the paper nor money in the bank, neither. Just refuse to bear them.  William Faulkner
Used to be, you’d get caught with your hand in the cookie jar and lie, cry, sigh, ask why, deny, something. Out of shame. We shaved our fingers in gest-ure. Now the crooked politicos and businesspersons, cheating students and lovers go through a revolving door from success to disgrace and back to success. Shouldn’t [place name here] Martha Stewart be hiding her face in shame, never again leaving her estate? Guess not. Celebrities busted (and we chuckle), plug-in families with interchangeable pieces, sex with for-sale strangers—hey, that’s show biz!

I know a couple people who have been arrested, convicted, jailed, released, and I can’t get over how they go right back to their daily lives as if nothing had happened. The whole business slides off like fried eggs on Teflon. What’s changed? Maybe I didn’t see clearly because I was young, but it wasn’t like this in the past. People cried, repented, begged forgiveness, paid penance. At least they mounted an improbable defense like sweaty “I am not a crook” Nixon. Like Academy Award evangelist, Jimmy Swaggart. Clinton, Letterman, the Pope (sort of).

Nowadays we seem to be imitating the psychopaths who rule our newswaves and tvwaves. “I shot all those people. Yeah, so?” “I stole all that money. Yeah, so?” “I betrayed your trust. Yeah, so?” We’ve developed tortoise shells of indifference to our own guilt. Or become very good at hiding it.

Remember the nightmare where you’re onstage and realize you’re naked? That’s not a nightmare anymore, it’s a dream come true. It’s the aspiration of the younger generation, the big bang, the reality joke. And I’m not talking about shame for nakedness, like Father Serra on his first visit to California:

“I found myself in front of twelve of them, and I saw something I could not believe. It was this: they were entirely naked as Adam in the garden, before sin. We spoke a long time with them, and not for one moment, while they saw us clothed, could you notice the least sign of shame in them.”
And I’m not talking about shaming others, which shouldn’t work, or the worst of all, when society makes people feel shame towards themselves. I heard an Indian say that the white schools made him ashamed of being an Indian. That’s some education! Gays ashamed. The overweight. Teenagers with poor complexions. The illiterate. Sick people. Unwed mothers. No one should feel ashamed for who they are, but only for what they do. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that what we were taught?

I don’t want anyone to feel misplaced or exaggerated shame (the guilt trip goes nowhere), but some wouldn’t hurt. Shame, when it’s working, makes you wish you could dig a hole and jump in; extreme humiliation, remorse, embarrassment. And for good reason. Guilt is realizing you have done wrong. Condemnation is being sentenced for doing wrong. But shame is self-sentencing, the real punishment, the feeling that you’re unworthy, depraved, rotten. Shame should be a feeling so bad and so strong that we avoid it like an electric fence. Change your plans, go around the obstacle, anything, but don’t touch that wire!

You don’t need a church to tell you what’s wrong, what to avoid. Or schools, parents, the social order. You know. It’s not so flexible. You know. Before the ten commandments, they already knew. All the rest is excuses and justifications. Our punishment-reward system is built-in. We know the right thing, though we don't always do it. But when cheaters prosper, when crime pays, when exhibitionism is rewarded and when nobody seems scandalized or ashamed of anything anymore, the non-cheaters feel, well, stupid. Is honesty stupid today? Modesty passé?

This fat ugly old guy who works at my university, in the registrar’s office was trading, um, blow jobs for straight A’s. Despicable, right? So he gets caught, goes to jail, goes to trial, gets convicted, does a few weeks time, gets out, gets his six-month notice for early retirement ... and comes back to work, and spends his days sitting in the corridor, that we all pass through, yucking it up with students and profs alike, teasing passersby.  I mean, has the world gone insane or what?

Not to mention Berlusconi, and I prefer not to mention Berlusconi. This post is not about him. I’m sick of his raunchy sex life. Please leave us alone, go crawl in your bunker in the Bahamas. You should be ashamed. And everyone who voted you, and everyone who defends you, and everyone who is not embarrassed by and for you. Enough already.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: The Tate Watch Co., established in the 1880s in Massachusetts …
Jeff: Oh goody, I love history.
Mutt: The Tate Watch Co., established in the 1880s in Massachusetts, wanted to expand their line of products. They decided on compasses, reasoning that the pioneers traveling west would all need one. Their watches were of excellent quality, not so their compasses. Pioneers often ended up in Canada or Mexico. Hence the expression, "He who has a Tate is lost."
Jeff: I used to love history.
Mutt: Your turn.
Jeff: A group of chess enthusiasts checked into a hotel and were standing around in the lobby discussing their recent tournament victories. About an hour later, the manager comes out of his office and asks them to disperse. "But why?" they asked as they moved along. "Because," said the manager, "I can't stand chess nuts boasting in an open foyer."
Mutt: Every one a winner. How about the guy who goes to the psychiatrist and says, “Doc, I can't stop singing 'The green, green grass of home.'”
Jeff: And the doctor says, “That sounds like the Tom Jones syndrome.”
Mutt: And the guy says, “Is it common?”
Jeff: And the doc says … (All together now)
Mutt and Jeff: “It's not unusual!”


Graham Moody said...

I have grown tired of winter.
The fog that creeps in across the valley is dismal.
I have grown tired of philosophizing.
The fog that creeps in across my brain is paralyzing.
I have grown tired of alphabet soup.
The letters in the bowl form 'retreat.'

E. Martin Pedersen said...

That is the best comment I have ever received.

I was watching Ken Burns Civil War, and it fit right in.

Are we in a Civil War with ourselves?

I surrender.