No Shame In That

A phrase I will never utter to anyone, no matter how egregious their misstep, is, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” or its little old lady cousin, “Shame on you!” As a parent, I fully understand the motivation behind this kind of criticism. Someone has done something and there has got to be some way to let them know, unequivocally, that they should never do it again. As carrots and sticks go, shame is a pretty big stick, which would be great if shaming someone ever improved anything, which it never has. People often do things they wish they hadn’t and then feel ashamed of what they’ve done. Sometimes these people even change their behavior after this sinking epiphany, and here shame often gets the credit. Who wants a dark spot on their soul? We shall scrub it clean with penance and a requisite time of good behavior.

Except it is never the shame that changes us, it is the recognition that what we were doing wasn’t working, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in monumental ways. The shame is merely a nasty story we tell after the fact, a story that says there is perhaps something inherently wrong with us that led us to whatever behavior we wish to change.

Nothing is more debilitating than the belief that there even may be something intrinsically flawed about us. For instance, when you write, that some flaw (shallowness, stupidity, simplicity, naïveté) could be revealed within your work can cut creativity off at it source. And so perhaps we scrutinize our work for that black spot that we, inherently flawed as we are, could not recognize but some cleverer soul might.

I believe thousands of unfinished first novels sit in drawers around the world because of a fear of shame. The story that there is something wrong with us, something beyond our control like a lost game of genetic roulette, is a kind of death sentence. I could be happy, but the cards weren’t in my favor. And so it’s over. Except that it’s never over. You take another breath, you make another choice, and life goes on. The job of life is not to cleanse our souls of original sin, but to release the original perfection bound by the fear of an unreal limitation.

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