Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Some Thoughts on the Concept of Shame

For me, one of the most curious facts about the horror of the holocaust is that it was kept a closely guarded secret. To be sure, there were rumors of its existence, but most peoples (and most nations) dismissed them as simply being too outlandish to be real -- to be nothing more than war fevered propaganda.

I remember, in particular, a bit of film from after the war where an American regiment rounded up the citizens who were proximate to one of the extermination camps and forced them to see the mass graves that they lived next to. The shock and misery of those people was palpable and it was utterly clear that they had no idea that they had lived in close proximity to this horror.

It is not as though the German's did not embrace their anti-Semitism. The official government position that the Jew's were to blame for society's ills was a populist sentiment that played a very large part in the ascension of the Nazi party. When the government said that Jew's were subhuman conspirators who must be isolated and contained, the German public did not cry out in outrage or disagreement. And yet, in spite of this widespread hatred of the Jews, the Nazi's -- who were led by a literally paranoid man who hated and feared the Jews with a personal passion -- could not bring themselves to admit that they were performing a massive and systematic campaign of extermination. Somehow, even they felt shame over their actions (although not nearly enough shame, obviously).

Shame is, I believe, one of the most powerful emotions that we have. Shame bends our actions. People have committed acts of murder in order to conceal their shame. When public figures do things that society deems shameful, we flock to gaze and heap castigation upon them. Shame has warped history and has brought down dynasties. It is an emotion that is both potent and utterly common.

I have found myself thinking about the things that I've done that I'm ashamed of. If I may be indulged, let me share one particular incident (and not, I emphasize, the worst). Please be assured that my goal isn't simply to confess myself but, rather, as a prelude to a pondering. Bear with me.

When I was in Jr. High, I was a very lonely and unhappy person. I was a classic nerd. I was deeply interested in things like physics and philosophy but I had virtually no social skills and, as a consequence, very few friends. When I entered Jr. High, I had the good fortune to meet another kid named Richard. Richard was an ideal friend. He was brainy, he was geeky, and we had broadly overlapping interests. Even though he lived on the other side of the city, I would frequently visit him so we could play together and talk about all sorts of things. There was only one problem and that was that I was jealous of him. Richard's parents were attentive where mine typically seemed at a loss to know what to do with me. Richard's family was relatively wealthy where mine always seemed to be on the verge of poverty. Worst of all, though, was the fact that Richard was clearly more intelligent than me.

It is necessary to understand that my sense of personal esteem had been under nearly constant assault from the point of my earliest memories. I was socially inept, I was physically awkward, and I never developed the facility to make many friends. As a consequence of this, my intelligence was one of the few things that I could feel proud about. Indeed, it may well have been the only thing. Until I met Richard, I was always the most intelligent person that I knew (at least in my personal estimation which, of course, was subjectively biased). Richard's superior intelligence upset me on a very deep level. I resented it, although most of my resentment was not a conscious resentment. Never the less, it is this resentment that explains my actions.

Richard was in love with a girl from his neighborhood. It was the sort of absolute fixation that's all too typical of early love, especially among those of us who aren't on the insides of the hierarchies that school children form amongst themselves. I knew fully well that he loved her and knew how deeply his feelings went. I can not claim ignorance as a defense for what I did.

It was on his birthday. It was a relatively small party but it did include all of the friends that Richard had made. During the course of the party I told Richard that the girl really did like him and I got everyone else to egg him on to go over to her house and tell her how he felt. I don't know why the other kids at the party went along with this ghastly joke, but I knew my own reasons. I felt that if I could manipulate him into doing this that I would have proved that I was, in fact, the more intelligent one.

Richard went to her house, accompanied by us, and told her that loved her. She had a visibly striken expression on her face when he told her this. I don't remember her saying anything. I do remember her shutting the door and the profound silence that followed. I knew, immediately, that I had gone too far. I knew that our friendship was over.

Richard never spoke to me again.

Now, I want to ask you to take a moment and to think about the things that you've done to hurt others in your life. Although I don't know who is reading this, I would guess that it's more than likely that you've done something as bad as this to one of your friends. I will also guess that you have not told many people about it and that you don't like to think about it very often.

It is often remarked that children can be cruel and everyone has a story that they are ready to tell about how others have been cruel to them. We do not, however, like to tell the stories of how we have been cruel to others. Those things that shame us, we keep to ourselves. We may even avoid confessing them to our own lovers and spouses.

Yet, when I think back on this event, I realize that it was this incident that taught me that friendships are not to be treated lightly. It was because of this that I became so sensitive to respecting the feelings of others and honoring the feelings of my friends, in particular. I suspect that this is a common side-effect of our shameful acts. It is the pain of our shame that often spurs us to improve ourselves (though it is a great pity that the pain we inflict on others, in the process, is not compensated).

I wonder, what it would be like if we were to openly admit these things, these painful histories that we write. Would knowing that others have done things that are just as terrible as our own transgressions help us to grow or would the realization that shame was a common thing steal its power and deprive it of its ability to motivate us to improve ourselves?

Would our Auschwitzes be out in the open, as banal a fact as the evil that drove their creation?

Monday, March 29, 2004


If you are here, it's either because you are one of a very small group of people whom I have told about this or you have stumbled upon it by accident. In either case, I'd like to take a moment to talk about what I intend to do here.

I have no patience with journals. Attempts to keep journals, in the past, invariably die from a case of abject apathy. I also don't understand why anyone would be particularly interested in the day to day doings of my life.

My intention is to have this be a place where I can post essays, stories, poems and various musings about a wide range of topics. Sometimes the topics will be serious, sometimes they may satiricial or even silly.

I do hope that you might find something here that will provoke thought and enjoyment.

Welcome aboard.

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