Shame

By Terry Plotkin.

I bought a pizza recently from a local shop owned by a Latino immigrant family. We know each other and say hello when we pass on the street. After eating, I went home. I woke up in the middle of the night with a startle, as I realized that I had forgotten to pay the bill. (It is uncanny how thoughts like this surface in the middle of the night, when they remain hidden during the waking hours.) I went back the next day to make restitution. I tried to make a joke out of what I did, but the owner did not even smile and greeted me nonchalantly. He took my money and rang it up as if it was still the night before, and I had just finished eating. He did not thank me for coming in specially to pay him, nor did he seem mad at my mistake. I thought it curious that he had no reaction at all until I realized that he did not want me to feel shame for what I did, so he pretended nothing had happened.

Any sensitive human being will preserve another person’s dignity when they can. I have noticed men often deal with issues like that by not ever saying anything and, in this way, no one loses face. Women might take the time to talk it through in private. At least that is how it is done when human kindness prevails. Those that indulge the darker side of human nature will sense someone’s shame and exploit it for nefarious reasons. This is where bullying, gossiping, put-downs, cliques, and snobbery come into play. They seem to think that reducing another and watching them squirm somehow elevates the perpetrators to a higher place, when, in reality it is a downward spiral of diminishment for everyone involved.

Shame is subtle. People feel it for all kinds of reasons, and they act to mitigate it, even if they don’t acknowledge its existence. For instance, the shame people feel for not having the right look will drive them to shop for the latest fashions, wear their hair in the latest style, purchase an expensive car to show they have “made it,” mortgage their future to own a house for status, put on lavish displays to impress others, not speak for fear of looking unintelligent, not go out if they don’t have a consort, not eat in public if they feel fat, lash out if they feel exposed, avoid shame by hiding their sexuality, garner a college degree or even a doctorate just to have letters placed after their name, attend church services to show their piety, and lie so they can appear adequate.

We pay a huge price for trying to feel okay for just being born. Why must we jump through so many hoops to be a member of society? Locking into this desire for approval and reacting to prevent embarrassment can shape one’s life more than any other factor. Shocking. Awareness of the problem must come first. Then courage must be mustered to push aside, internally and externally, those that would put us down. Realizing that others’ approval isn’t worth that much would help. If the humiliation happens at a young age, and if a parent is involved, digging out of that hole will not be easy, but it might be possible to take just one step towards liberation. Once taken, the second step will be slightly easier, and the third, easier still. The yoke of conformity has to be thrown off. There are people out there who will see you for what you are, and, in their appreciation and friendship, strengthen you. Whatever it is you become in life, as long as it is something you chose for yourself, not a life that someone else demanded of you, then you should be in decent shape to accept who you are in this world.

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