Shouting “Shame” at a protest rally on the steps of the Provincial Legislature building felt shameful. Yet I was drawn in by the pulse of those assembled as the speakers called out the injustices of previous governments. We were attempting to make ourselves heard and to hold those currently in power to account. Yet as I walked away from the demonstration, I felt slightly ashamed by my vocal use of that word. I felt embarrassed that I had lost some control over myself for the sake of joining in this act of public shaming.
I spoke with a friend about the meaning of shame and guilt within our personal narratives. She asked if I had experienced any shaming as a child. I told her one of my first memories, sitting with my parents at our dinner table, wanting to join in on the adult conversation. My mother loudly admonished me for barging in. “Shut your face!” she shamelessly shouted. I had been excited but now I was ashamed. I remember the blush of embarrassment, resisting tears yet fully shocked. What did I do? I was too young to analyze all the meaningful particulars, but now as an adult I can say to myself, I am not a bad person for interrupting my mother.
I can even say I bare no feelings of guilt, yet by telling this story I still feel the flush of shame coming to my cheeks. I was brought up in an age where parents and teachers might regularly say things like, “How dare you?” or “Shame on you!” to drive home their point of knowing one’s place in the world. Some old school teachers might send kids to the corner, or even get them to wear a dunce cap. My mom would give me the silent treatment when I had misbehaved. I wonder if shunning is a form of shaming.
The novel ‘The Scarlet Letter’ was one of several books I read in high school English class that had a lasting impact on me. In this moving story of shame, Religious zealots (Puritans) force the character, Hester Prynne, to wear a red letter A to atone for her sins. What astonished me was her grace in protecting those who had brought her this embarrassment. I learned that guilt is put onto us by others while shame is generated from within. She refused to be ashamed of herself. We too, can refuse to be ashamed of ourselves.
I don’t believe it was right then, anymore than it is now, to belittle someone. There are other ways to register disapproval of our elected officials or anyone who might offend our view of things. Questions can be posed, opinions shared, without pushing guilt on to the other. We don’t have to make others feel unworthy to satisfy our own sense of righteousness.
By the same token we have every right to shamelessly go about the business of our lives, looking for ways to express ourselves and be fully human without owning the knitted brows of disapproval that sometimes are directed at us.