Shame is Good, Kind of

I have only heard of shame in a negative context. I’m going to give it a more positive context here. Shame is a negative word – and it should be. It should highlight something we did wrong. But we should not suppress these negative feelings of guilt and shame. We should learn from them. We have more to learn from guilt and shame than any other emotion. 

Shame is the most important feeling humans can feel. It’s our gut, our spirit, talking to us, and telling us we need to do something different. Shame and guilt are the ultimate motivators for spiritual growth and for avoiding vice. Even for worldly growth, it’s pretty good. For example, if we sit around depressed all day, we feel shame and know we should get up and accomplish something. However, this is more true for non-worldly matters. 

When I say worldly matters, I mean matters that manifest out of this world, not that manifest from God. Things that manifest from God are good: the universe, beauty, virtue. Things that don’t manifest from God are things like status, romantic encounters that are used for pleasure, most forms of entertainment, and anything economical or financial. 

Shame helps stay focused on the Godly things, because we get a shameful feeling in our gut when we act in a way that isn’t Godly. We know we are doing the wrong thing and should be doing something better. There’s no hiding this feeling. If we do the right thing, but we didn’t intend to do the right thing, then we still get the shameful feeling in our gut, and we can work on that. There is so much feedback coming to us that we can choose to use to become better and stronger. All we really need to do is listen. 

Saw a cool quote on reddit in a discussion of the show, The Office: 

Seeing virtuous characters invokes guilt and self awareness which feels bad. On the other hand, making shitty people into heroes feels good and validates personality flaws the viewer refuses to work on. It’s the same reason most villains today are subverted as being bad despite showing traditional virtues.

I taught a lesson on the anti-hero’s journey, which is a modern invention that explains some of the modern protagonists in these overly-edgy mass produced movies. It’s not just a play on the hero’s journey, it’s a complete destruction of the hero’s journey, and a glorification of the values that are counter to the hero. Think Roy and Dwight in The Office: the hard-working farmer and the engaged blue collar worker.

The hero is a man with a goal to reach perfection and bring that perfection to the world. This is difficult. It’s hard to be perfect, and many people don’t want to see others being perfect. These movies wouldn’t be boring, but they wouldn’t be relatable. People wouldn’t be inspired. That’s why there’s surprisingly few movies about Jesus. It just isn’t relatable. It doesn’t let people sulk. It’s a call to action, and people don’t want to act. 

It’s weird that people don’t want to act. I want to. I want to work towards perfection, and I want models that are perfect to work toward. It would be nice to not be alone in this journey, and seeing others, even in media, is a comforting thing. 

That’s not most people, at least according to box office numbers. Most people want to see a corrupted protagonist. Someone who drinks, swears, womanizes, and loses his temper: someone that we can relate to because they aren’t perfect. Not someone we can relate to because we want to be perfect. It’s strange to me that more people don’t have perfection as a goal. If you are perfect, you’re happy. That’s like, perfect, by definition. There’s nowhere else to go, since perfection has been achieved. 

This observation is important. It means perfection is going to be very difficult. It also means that striving for happiness through striving for perfection through other means is impossible. You cannot chase worldly success in order to be perfect, which, if perfection defines happiness, you will not find it. I don’t think perfection defines happiness, but it comes pretty close. You won’t come close to perfection or happiness if you become obsessed with vice and material gain. You may get closer to perfection and happiness if you pursue virtue. I’m not sure I watch enough TV to speak to the villains representing traditional virtues (other than The Office examples), but it makes sense. I suppose Thanos was pretty big on that. That ultimate chad killed off an overpopulated universe then sat and farmed his land. The second part of that is pretty based. 

While I want to promote a happy exploration of shame when it does occur, I don’t want people to feel shame. It’s a very negative emotion. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul says, “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” Shame is a feeling that follows shameful ways. It is sinful action and sinful intention that cause shameful feelings. Renounce those sinful thoughts and behaviors, and we will not feel the negative feelings. 

In Psalm 25, David says, “O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me. Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame; they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.” It is by working with God, by knowing his ways and acting according to his ways, that we avoid feelings of shame. By no other ways can we avoid shame. 

Both David (lead me in your truth) and Paul (we do not use deception… setting forth the truth) make a point of emphasizing truth in regards to shame. When we lie to others or lie to ourselves about sin, we invite shame, which is really a consequence of sin. If we have sinful thoughts or we sin in action, we feel shame. That’s like, the definition of sin: we won’t be happy if we do it, and shame is one of the main reasons we won’t be happy if we sin. This truth the prophets spoke of is deeper than just being honest. It’s the ultimate truth that we must follow if we are to avoid shame. This is because we don’t always know what the ultimate truth is at the moment of sin. When I was in my 20s, I committed sins that I didn’t know were sins. I was honest with women, but I provoked lust. I thought that because I was being honest, there was no crime being committed. I was wrong. Now, years later, I feel shame for my previous actions. I hurt people, and I hurt myself and my relationship with God. If I knew the ultimate truth: more truth than I had access to at the time, I would not have committed those sins. 

That is a really difficult concept to teach to young adults: don’t commit sins that you aren’t even aware are sins. How do you teach that? The concept will not register with them on a logical level. That’s part of the reason I became a teacher: I want to connect with students on multiple levels to teach them morality. I want to be a source of ethos, a source of credibility in my arguments in favor of Biblical morality. It is through credible, logical, and emotional arguments that I might be able to influence students to do the right thing. Logic alone will not work for students at that age, because they haven’t experienced enough to reach the same conclusions about truth. The ultimate truth depends on their future experience or their trust in an authority who has that experience, like me, or God. 

Don’t commit sin. If you do, feel shameful. You deserve it. Repent, and don’t sin next time.