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How are We Supposed to Deal with Our Shame?

     Do you ever feel ashamed?

     If you’re anything like me, then you may have said or done sometime this week or last Friday night you’re not proud of, and you wish—oh, how you wish—it had never happened.

     Assuming for a moment that you’ve done at least one shameful deed at some point in your life, let me ask you, what did you do with your shame? As Americans, how are we supposed to deal with our shame? In American society we don’t have a social structure or a legal system that addresses shame. The United States is an innocence-guilt culture in which we emphasize personal integrity and individual responsibility. In our culture, it is important for individuals to maintain their innocence, which is why we teach our children it’s never appropriate to lie, cheat, or steal. If someone gets caught breaking the law or has a moral failing that becomes public, that individual is declared guilty and needs to make some form of restitution. However, paying a fine or serving time doesn’t address a person’s shame. A rapist may pay for his guilt in prison, but on the day he’s set free, how does he escape his shame? As for his victim, what is she supposed to do if she, after hearing the guilty verdict, exits the courtroom feeling naked and ashamed? …

     Because American culture is so biased toward an innocence-guilt perspective on life, shame is not just an issue our society struggles to address; shame is an issue our society struggles to recognize. We Americans want to believe there is no reason to be ashamed of ourselves if we haven’t committed a crime, but we don’t have to be guilty of breaking the law to bring shame upon ourselves, our families, and our communities. Furthermore, because guilt and shame feel much the same, when we experience shame, we often mistake those feelings for guilt. Yet guilt and shame are not the same; guilt and shame reflect different offenses.

     Unlike guilt, which is an emotion that individuals feel when they violate a law, shame is an emotion that an entire group feels when one of its members violates a relationship. Therefore, when we as human beings fail to treat one another with respect or when we break the bond of trust in a personal relationship, we bring shame upon ourselves, upon the relationship we violate, and upon the community of people we represent. …

     As Americans, we may live with an innocence-guilt perspective on life, but as human beings we feel the shame of our violated relationships. We can suppress our shame, or we can try to address our shame as if it were guilt, but unlike guilt, we cannot pay for our shame. It doesn’t matter how much or how often we pay, the shame we feel as lingering guilt cannot be paid away.

     So once again I ask, how are we supposed to deal with our shame? …

     In our twenty-first-century world—a world in which our communal existence has been reduced to a wasteland of broken relationships and distrust—we need a faith that not only addresses our guilt but also helps us deal with our shame.

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About Leon Hayduchok

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  1. […] response, we are consumed with covering and hiding the truth of who we are, what we think, and the shameful things we’ve said and done. We pretend to be smarter, stronger, purer, more beautiful, and better in […]

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