Saturday, December 15, 2012
It's a Shame
The prank call was juvenile and invasive and got much farther than the two DJ's from Australia ever anticipated. Somehow they got past one nurse to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton's caregiver, where they were given information about her condition they should never have received. The DJ's exulted in their improbable triumph until they were told that the first nurse was dead, probably by her own hand. I have no doubt that their remorse is real and they are devastated by this outcome.
Many people have speculated as to why Jacintha Saldanha, a 46-year-old mother of two would take her own life over something which was an embarrassment to be sure, but an unwitting gaffe. Was she mentally ill or fragile? Her family loved her, her co-workers admired her, and she had not been admonished by her bosses. I wonder if it was shame that caused her to spiral downward, as undeserved as it was.
As I thought about shame I rummaged around for an article I read by Carol Zaleski back in 2009. It explores, quite thoughtfully, the connection between shame and guilt:
Shame, however, is an even more elusive and mercurial word than guilt. It serves as an exclamation, as a substantive, as a transitive verb. It describes a phenomenon that is at once physiological, affective and cognitive: a burning and reddening of the face (hence the Latin erubesco) triggered by the awareness of being caught out or appearing wrong in the sight of real or imagined others. The phenomenon is a social one too: we are never ashamed alone, but only before the eyes of a teacher, parent, friend, rival or alter ego. The sense of shame proves that we are social animals whose blood and nerves unavoidably betray our connection to other people.
On one level, shame is a mechanism for internalizing social codes, suitable for deterring undesirable behavior but subject to misuse. On another level, shame signals the dignity of the human person, telling of our freedom to embrace or reject our relationship to God...
Perhaps I have said or done something embarrassing. I wish it could be undone. I pray, in effect: Lord, don’t you have a time machine I could borrow? It would take but a moment to undo that small thing and no one need be the wiser. But the prayer is refused. Eventually the shame fades away on its own, and something else takes its place: the awareness of a deeper guilt, so far below the surface that no reproach attaches to it; no one knows about it, and no one would think less of me for it, for it is the human condition.
Shame feels like a sharp pang or sting, but guilt feels like a heavy weight.
Shame can be deeply rooted in our upbringing, our secrets, our sense of self. Sometimes religion can create unreasonable shame in our innermost being. All I know is that my heart sank when I heard of Jacninta's death. What a waste of a life in our increasingly boorish, celebrity-obssessed society. Pray for her family.
What are your thoughts on shame? Is it part of your own struggle? Does your faith deepen or free you from shame?