Friday, February 19, 2016

The Argument for Shame

                There’s been a story floating across the social media universe showing a bunch of tourists taking selfies with a baby dolphin. The tourists “selfied” this baby dolphin to death. It’s serious and I honestly think there should be some criminal charges leveled against the perpetrators.  They took this creature, which might have as much, if not more intelligence as human beings, from the water and paraded around with it in a mob, taking pictures. The audacity of people makes me wonder. Where has shame gone?

                Shame is an important part of the learning process, it teaches us empathy. If we find ourselves in an unfortunate situation and made to feel bad about something we’ve done, something wrong, then we learn from it and try to behave in a manner that won’t produce similar consequences.  We remember how bad we felt about some particular action and vow to ourselves that we don’t be doing that again.

                So where was the shame on that beach? Where is the shame in general? I know our culture has been vaccinating ourselves against shame for a while now. It’s in the merchandising and mantras all around us; “Just Do It”, “Dance like no one’s watching”, “Damn the torpedoes” and such. These are damaging phrases if adhered to un-tempered by shame. This go-go culture has no time for shame. Shame is a bad feeling and we don’t like bad feelings so we’re just not going to allow people to feel shame. We’re just going to tell them to live their lives like there are no consequences and you don’t have to feel the bad feelings.

                Without shame, however, we do not regret anything. Without regret we never give ourselves a chance to learn something new about ourselves, we never grow. Shame and regrets aren’t necessarily bad things. In some instances, I’m proud of the mistakes I’ve made. They taught me how to be a better person.  I arrived at that place through understanding shame.

                I’m not advocating corporal shaming punishments. I’m not talking about the shame some children endured under the heavy yoke of a Catholic education or any other dogmatic doctrine. Some of that stuff bordered on bullying, rather than constructive shame building. I’m not talking about finger pointing type of shame either, or body shaming. I’m talking about the basic, human ability to feel bad about something and their desire to make it better yet knowing they can’t, but declaring they will never be in that position again; that kind of appropriate shame reaction.

                A society that isn’t occasionally ashamed of itself will stagnate and rot. We have to remember there are consequences to every action and that things don’t always work out like we planned. We have to listen to the voice inside, the voice of experience that says, “These people taking pictures with the baby dolphin are assholes and I should do something to stop it!” Understanding the consequences is key to human evolution and spreading that knowledge to others, even through the use of shame, helps the species survive just a little bit longer.

                If we fail to learn from the things we feel bad about, then we do not deserve our place. We will be outmoded and nature will decide we are unsustainable and eliminate us. Nature could do it, nature has no shame.

                Shame reminds us that just because you can do a thing doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. It’s an important distinction and I fear there are not enough people that understand it. It’s okay, every once, in a while to feel bad about something that we’ve done or said. It’s what makes us such a remarkable species. A remarkable species that through shame found the capacity to forgive each other, and that has made all the difference.  

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