varieties of shame

Following on from the last post, I’ve been thinking more about possibly helpful – or at least unavoidable – forms of shame.

First, I want to acknowledge just how unhelpful some forms of shame can be.  I think shame is most unhelpful when it focuses on the person and not the behaviour.  “You should be ashamed of yourself…” “Shame on you!” “I hope you’re ashamed…”  All of these focus the shame on the person.

Behind these statements is probably some kind of distorted sense of protective fear that wants the person to see what they’ve done, to take responsibility for it, and to change.  But the problem with focusing the shame on the person is that it actually does the opposite.  It takes their focus off of their behaviour and onto themselves as being shameful.  They feel labelled, categorized, tagged-and-bagged as ‘bad’.  This make a person feel trapped in this ‘bad’ state, and can make them feel like ‘bad’ people are simply bound to keep doing ‘bad’ things.

Let me quickly say that I don’t think the opposite is helpful either.  To say with glee simplicity: “It’s OK, you are awesome!”  Such popular positivism is well-meaning, and probably intends on letting kindness make a space for people to be their own guide and learn in their own time.  However, it can also have the opposite effect.  I don’t think any of us can truly or completely silence our conscience which reminds us that we are not perfect.  Overly-positive commentary from others, whilst well-meaning, can actually end up reminding us of our negatives.

The goal is the acceptance of our behaviour and taking responsibility for it.  And some forms of shame may just be helpful, necessary or unavoidable for this.

I am happy to be shown otherwise, but maybe it is helpful for us to feel some kind of shame when we have done something wrong.  And I am distinguishing shame from guilt.  Guilt is, I think, a logical admission, a verdict, in our minds that we did something.  Shame, in this sense, makes our admission a felt reality, an experience, in our hearts.

But now… what about shame that is sourced not in our own judgment of our own behaviour, but shame that is sourced in the judgment of others, our family, our church, our city, our society?  Can that ever be helpful or healthy?  I am daring to suggest it can.

One possibly helpful example is an anti-smoking campaign in Aotearoa-New Zealand: “smoking: not our future”.  This, it seems to me, is a movement that attempts to use shame in a helpful way.  Rather than pointing the finger, negatively, at people who smoke, it signals the future, positively, at a society which smokes less.   In principle, at least, it should be a good thing to promote good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour.  Some forms of shame seem to be unavoidable for this, right?

How does this basic dynamic become unhelpful or even harmful?  I reckon it happens when people use shame in ways that are a) disproportionate to the behaviour, b) self-righteous, c) impatient or d) forceful.  In principle, even putting someone in prison can be done in ways that are a) appropriate for the crime, b) humble, c) measured and d) gentle.

So much moral discourse in our culture seems to assume that the way to help people avoid depression and self-harm is to avoid anything that makes people feel shame.  I wonder if some of our overly-positive language serves to trap people in their own prison of self-judgment?

What if we accepted that sometimes people feel shame for good reasons, such as to come to a place of surrender and acknowledgement and taking responsibility?  Our role is to empathise with one another in our mutually-experienced guilt and shame.  We all get it wrong all the time about all kinds of things.  It doesn’t have to be a morality contest… It can just be life.

Shame doesn’t have to be linked to self-hatred and self-harm.  Shame can be re-claimed in a context of self-care and self-honesty.

If shame is such a wrong thing to feel, then it only makes us feel even worse when we feel ashamed.  But if shame is a normal part of human living and learning, then maybe we are strangely enabled to not stay trapped in our shame, but to work through it to acceptance and change.

Theologically speaking, the Gospel of Grace doesn’t imply that we are ‘basically good’ people who have never done anything shameful.  Rather, it is precisely because we have done those things, and (hopefully) have a healthy sense of regret, guilt and shame about them, that the Gospel of Grace is such good news.

of marriageable age

My last post got me thinking about other factors involved in who is ‘allowed’ to marry in different times and places in human history.  One factor is age.

I want to note here that a) what many Christians would say on this issue would reflect (perhaps as it should in this case?) the cultural attitudes around them, b) there is probably no official ‘Christian’ or biblical numeric answer for it, and c) this is an area of morality which seems to be characterised by both binary, ‘either/or’ thinking (either pre or post puberty) and gradient, ‘from-to’ thinking (from less mature to more mature).

The prohibition (‘discrimination’?) regarding people being too young to marry, is (like the prohibitions about gender, related-ness, and number of people) a protective one.  Both the people involved (including their bodies) and the institution are being protected.  In the case of age, the young people are being protected, to be blunt, from their own immaturity.   Which leads to the next point.

The conversation (ethically and biblically) is about maturity.  Clearly we all can imagine the 50 year old fool who is utterly incompatible with even the thought of monogamy.  Like a rattlesnake which has not yet learned to conserve its venom and wastes it all on each bite, he or her has not matured to a point of self-control required to sustain fidelity in marriage.  Equally clearly, especially for those of us in contexts where the legal marriageable age is high (18 in New Zealand – 16 with parental consent), we may have known individuals who were technically under the age, but seemed beyond reasonable doubt to be easily mature enough for marriage.

Traditionally, in older contexts and less ‘developed’ (depending on your standards for what constitutes ‘development’!) contexts, the age for marriage clusters around biology – puberty.  Ability to bear children was and is linked to response-ability to raise those same children.  And fair enough too.  But this mention of responsibility raises a dynamic I find both interesting and worrying…  We seem to be sponsoring immaturity.

We rightly and understandably put off and absolve young people of responsibility until they are old enough, but ‘old enough’ seems to get older and older the more ‘developed’ the context is.  In simple ‘primitive’ cultures, maturity comes earlier because the convenience of delayed responsibility is absent.  The 13 year old is a valuable asset to the family’s sustainability, and must “chop wood and carry water” if they are to survive.  Our teenagers whine about having to put the dishes in the dishwasher.  Which one is ready for marriage?

friday morning

Saw these lyrics for the first time yesterday. (Thanks Andrew Picard!)
Loving the irony in this song.  Carter was obviously gifted.

It was on a Friday morning
that they took me from the cell
and I saw they had a carpenter
to crucify as well
You can blame it on to Pilate
You can blame it on the Jews
You can blame it on the Devil
It’s God I accuse
It’s God they ought to crucify
instead of you and me
I said to the carpenter,
a-hanging on the tree 

You can blame it on to Adam
You can blame it on to Eve
You can blame it on the apple,
but that I can’t believe
It was God that made the Devil
And the woman and the man
And there wouldn’t be an apple
If it wasn’t in the plan
It’s God they ought to crucify
instead of you and me
I said to the carpenter,
a-hanging on the tree

Now Barabbas was a killer
And they let Barabbas go
But you are being crucified
For nothing that I know
And your God is up in Heaven
and He doesn’t do a thing
With a million angels watching
and they never move a wing
It’s God they ought to crucify
instead of you and me
I said to the carpenter,
a-hanging on the tree

To hell with Jehova
To the carpenter I said
I wish that a carpenter
had made the world instead
Goodbye and good luck to you
our ways will soon divide
Remember me tomorrow
The man you hung beside
It’s God they ought to crucify
instead of you and me
I said to the carpenter,
a-hanging on the tree

good guns

A quick gun-related post after some recent events in NZ & thinking about it. When you encounter an action or idea that you find utterly insane or impossible to understand, it’s always good (pun intended) to look for some good reason behind it, which may have been distorted.  In the case of “gun rights” it’s not too hard to see some good things about having and using guns.

  • Guns are probably best considered as a kind of power-increasing tool, and power in and of itself is good.
  • To the extent that killing an animal (hopefully for food) is acceptable, a gun just makes this easier to do.
  • To the extent that killing a human (hopefully as a last resort and only self defense) is acceptable, a gun just makes this easier to do.
  • The case of gun shooting as a hobby or interest (i.e. gun collectors having meetings to share and shoot their guns, etc.) seems a perfectly acceptable activity.

Of course a similar list could be made of ‘bad’ things. As for what kind of laws to have to help gun users do more of the ‘good’ and less of the ‘bad’, I have only a few ideas, which I won’t bother mentioning here.  Ultimately, laws don’t change people.  To close, here are some positive & negative memories associated with guns.

  • I owned a black-powder rifle for around a year.  My brother, his friend Ralph and I went a time or two to a firing range and shot them.  It was fun.  Learning how to pack the powder, etc.  Boys and their toys.
  • I have a brother-in-law who hunts often, but only for food I believe.  I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and the animals die with more respect than they would on some cattle farms.
  • My Dad had a 44 magnum (still has?).  I remember him target shooting ‘out back’.  The sound was incredible.  There was ever so slight a delay from firing to impact – on the 50-gallon drum lid propped up against a tree.  As a small boy, I was in awe.  My Dad was Clint Eastwood.
  • My Dad used to go deer hunting, until those he hunted with kept going way over their legal limit for the season.  I still remember walking past the massive pile of deer guts. I’m proud of my Dad for not taking part in that.
  • I also remember (after shooting and hitting a squirrel several times – to no discernible effect! – with a BB gun) finally killing my first bird – a robin I believe.  It fluttered from the power line it had been perched on to the ground.  I walked up to it, and saw it twitching in pain.  The thought was so strong it seemed nearly audible – “Well what did you do that for?”  I put it out of its misery, and I don’t believe I’ve ever shot another animal again.

power, complexity & ethics

Two things (neither good/evil of themselves) which will not make humans more moral are technology & science.

  • Technology gives us ever-increasing levels of power; and this power can be used to do both good and evil.  Spiderman, anyone ((“With great power comes great responsibility.”))?
  • Science gives us an ever-increasing amount of data/facts; which make ethical choices more complex/detailed/varied – but which do not help us in the slightest bit to either know or do the right thing.