What's Tony Thinking

Maybe Shame Ain’t All Bad?


The popular author and speaker Brene Brown has taught us that there’s a difference between guilt and shame. “Guilt,” says Brown is “feeling bad about making a mistake. Shame is feeling that you are a mistake.”

Guilt in this understanding is a useful thing, a sign that you’ve done something wrong and need to deal with it. Shame is just a bad thing. Something we ought not have or experience.

I’ve liked Brown’s distinction and her calling out the how soul- destroying shame can be. Often victims of childhood sexual abuse experience a crippling sense of shame that is not their’s to carry.

But I’m not sure the distinction between guilt and shame is that clear, or that shame is always a bad thing.

According to the dictionary “shame” is, “A painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety,”

There’s something to shame that isn’t quite comprehended by guilt. Shame is deeper. I don’t know that it has to mean that we hate ourselves forever or that we are a mistake. We can have a sense of shame that is at least sometimes appropriate.

I remember something that happened what I was maybe fourteen, a young teen growing up in Northern Virginia. Unlike some people there in Virginia, my parents were clear that racial prejudice was wrong, an awful thing. And so was my church.

And yet, I remember an incident that occurred when I was with one of church’s associate ministers. I really liked and admired this young man. I looked up to him.

Somehow a phrase popped out of my mouth that was awful. I said, “That’s white of you, John” to this minister. It was, sadly, part of the vernacular then and there. But it was not something I said. Until I did. It was as if I had coughed up some sort venom that just sat there, slimy and yucky.

I felt instantly and deeply ashamed. It was more than “I did something wrong.” It was deeper than that. I was horrified at myself. Where had that come from?

John didn’t say a word. I hoped like hell that he had not heard me.

My point is that I had a capacity for shame, for feeling badly about myself and what I had said in that moment. I don’t think that feeling was wrong. It was how I ought to have felt and I’m grateful I did have the sense to be ashamed of myself. Something would have been amiss if I didn’t feel that way.

I find myself thinking about shame because we have a President who seems to have zero capacity for shame. There is something deeply wrong with that. It is frightening.

And it’s even more frightening that it seems a politically useful and adaptive behavior. That he doesn’t seem ever to experience shame for terrible things he has done or said, seems politically useful. He skates on, clueless, oblivious, shameless.

While Joe Biden has no doubt had some sense of shame at being called out as too and inappropriately touchy, Trump whose words and actions have been so much more egregious, has no shame about taunting Biden.

We’re deep into the season of Lent at the moment. Lent is a time when there’s a fair bit of emphasis on our brokenness, our sinfulness, on feelings of shame and remorse.

Psalm 51, a Lenten psalm if there ever was one, contains lines like, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”

The prevailing wisdom these days may well see such a sentiment as more of a sign of lack of psychological health than of self-awareness. We’re pretty sure, or so it seems, that such a depth of self-disgust is never appropriate and is only self-destructive.

I’m not so sure. At some level, the capacity for shame seems crucial to our humanity.

Trump’s incapacity for shame seems one clear sign of some sort of serious human defect. The guy is missing something crucial.

So I’m not sure shame is all bad. It ain’t no fun. It doesn’t feel good. But there’s a time and place for it.

Perhaps you can only make a place for an appropriate sense of shame if you also know the experience of grace. Meaning that from somewhere beyond us comes restoration, forgiveness, liberation and healing. Shame is not always a bad word, but it ought never be the last word. The last word is grace.

So the Pslamist prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (51:10). This does happen. Restoration does happen. Healing does happen.

The experience of shame for our failures and of a mercy and grace far greater than our shame is a good and not a bad thing. To attain “shamelessness” is not an accomplishment. It is a defect. A shameful one.


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