Shame is a tactic that has been used to control human behavior for thousands of years. The theory is that making someone feel guilty about their misdeeds is a powerful method for changing their behavior. We often confuse the concepts of shame and punishment and think of them as being one and the same. In our efforts to modify bad actions we too often attempt to shame individuals into submission to our rules rather than keeping actions and feelings separate.
As a teacher I constantly encountered situations in which students had made bad choices, some of them resulting in harm to others. I had a duty to craft an appropriate consequence for the infractions, but drowning them in shame was never one of the tools that I used. In fact, I always let the offenders know that I condemned what they had done, but not them. I made certain that they understood that it was because I cared for them that I made them perform an appropriate penance. I also used that moment to talk with them about how they might have reacted differently when tempted to do something wrong.
I have felt disappointed and even anger with the actions of the people around me, but never have I felt ashamed. To me there is a very distinct difference between being guilty of doing something wrong, and being a guilty person. I have been taught from the time that I was a child that we have rules and traditions and ways of treating each other for a reason, and that wavering from them will result in consequences, but doing wrong should not be a reason for destroying a person’s soul.
I have made mistakes for which I have almost always paid a price. I have felt great sorrow and disappointment in myself. I have expressed my contrition for my misdeeds and then hoped that I might be forgiven. The hardest part has been forgiving myself, and sometimes in spite of my attempts to mend the rifts that I made, I have lost very special relationships. I did not need for anyone to shame me, because I had already done a very good job of harboring my guilt without compassion for myself.
I have also been hurt greatly by other people. The wounds I received were emotional rather than physical. I have had to make a clean break with individuals and situations that were toxic, but I did not feel ashamed of the people and situations as much as a sense of disappointment and a realization that our human imperfections run deeply in each of us. Keeping our dark sides at bay must be a continuous resolution because even a tiny slip has the potential to bring irreparable pain and suffering.
I come from a good family, and that includes the most extended reaches of the tree from which I was shaped. Every single one of us has had moments of regret when we did or said something that went against the lessons we were taught. Within the vast web of relations there have been mostly ordinary souls doing their best to be good people from one day to the next. Sometimes someone falters and becomes an addict, or hurts with words, or even abandons the family. While I may deplore what they are doing, I continue to love them and believe that if they were to return to the embrace of our family I would love them just as the father welcomed his prodigal son.
Every family has its black sheep. The behavior of such souls may confound us and even make us wary of them, but shaming has never been a constructive method for rehabilitating them. I often think of a story that my mother-in-law told me one Sunday while the two of us sipped on steaming cups of tea. She related how one of her uncles was a raging alcoholic who seemed incapable of overcoming his addiction. Many a night he would wander to a corner bar and drink himself into oblivion. Often his sister, my mother-in-law’s mother, would have go searching for him when he did not return home. There were times when she found him lying in a ditch so drunk that he could not move. She would climb into the murky water and lovingly help him into the back seat of her car to take him home.
This kind woman did not condone her brother’s behavior nor did she allow his condition to go untreated, but when she spoke of her brother she did so with compassion, respect and love. She did not feel ashamed of him so much as feel concern for him. The image of this beautiful and saintly woman helping her brother without feeling that somehow he had shamed the family has had a profound effect on how I react to fallen souls.
Of course some things are so egregious that our only choice as a society is to lock such monsters away. There are cold blooded killers among us. Sometimes they rise to powerful positions wherein they can use their murderous tendencies to control entire populations These kind of people are of a different sort altogether. They are sociopaths or psychopaths. I would not have kind feelings toward them nor would I feel any pressure to forgive them for what they have done. That is the domain of God. Nonetheless I would see no point in shaming them, because I don’t believe that it would do any good whatsoever. Such people are empty souls entirely unable to feel a sense of connection to others. Just locking them away and throwing away the key seems to be the most humane thing we might do with them.
Shame is a form of humiliation, an indignity that mercilessly strips a person down to the bone. It demoralizes rather than rehabilitates and in some cases it has no effect at all. Nonetheless we use it all the time in a kind of vindictive response to our own sense of hurt. There is way too much of that sort of thing happening in the world today. Perhaps we should focus instead on the idea of reconciliation when dealing with both our own mistakes and those of others. When we provide people, especially the young, with opportunities to pay for their infractions with sincere efforts to demonstrate intent to change, we offer them a means of rejoining our circle without being forever reminded of what was bad about them. Shaming creates broken souls. Avoid it at all costs.