The Definition of Shame


Shame… One word, so many possibilities. It’s been a long while since I’ve taken the time to reflect on the meaning(s) of this term.

“You should be ashamed of yourself.”

We’ve all heard it, addressed to us or others at least once. Ashamed of what?

In the Christian context shame mingles with sin.

I was six years old (or thereabouts) when I went to my first confession.

There was a long queue, and I was somewhere in the middle of it. For most people it took a couple of minutes. I had not been told that the customary approach was to go under the priest’s robe (no chuckles here please, it wasn’t under the full garment, just a little over extension with which he covered your head) and say “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned,” then add a couple of minor misdemeanours to be forgiven.

No. I was not aware of that, and having been frightened into believing that I’d make a good pot roast for Satan unless I confessed all, I came fully prepared (even then I had a penchant for research), long list in hand with every little thing I had ever done that may have displeased God… or St Peter, since I understood him to hold the keys to heaven, and was keen not to fall into the trap – often stated – of being eaten by the saints before I made it into the antechamber of the Almighty.

I wish I still had that list. My aunt laughed for weeks after reading it, but alas! it got lost in the annals of time.

Here are a few I can recall:

1. I didn’t say my prayer every evening. Some evenings I was tired and fell asleep half way though “thank you for the bread…”

2. I didn’t always share. There was a tasty melon in grandpa’s garden which my brother and I had stolen and eaten, only including one of our cousins in the fruit-adventure to the exclusion of three others.

3. We often stole cherries from the nearby orchard, but on this one I hoped God would be on my side, since he made all fruit and trees for everyone to enjoy, and I protested against the cooperative for wanting to keep it all for the Soviets.

4. I felt I should say sorry on behalf of Eve. I mean, apples are good for you, how was she supposed to know that God was serious about the whole ban on the tree thing. I mean, if he really didn’t want anyone to eat the apples, surely he wouldn’t have planted the tree in the first place.

5. I didn’t always treat my elders with respect. I knew I should, but there is this lady who is constantly drunk, and falls asleep in ditches … It makes it a little tough on the respect your elders side of things.

6. I kill Mosquitos. I’m not sure if God really minds this, but he did say not to kill. Is it ok to kill them only after they’ve sucked your blood or are pre-emptive strikes also acceptable?

7. There are these Jehovah witness kids who have some strange ideas about Jesus and baptism. Are they ok to play with or is it a sin? If so, could I please be forgiven for playing with them in the past.

8. I am not sure where to stand on the whole kissing the icon thing. I mean… On the one hand God says do not make false idols, on the other, Orthodox churches are all full of them. Also, is it wrong that I feel kinda gross kissing an icon after someone else slobbered all over it? Where does God stand on hygiene?

9. Forgot to fast. I’m not very good at not eating in the morning before coming to church for the sacred bread. A couple of times I’d eaten and still came after and ate the bread dunked in wine. Could God please forgive me, and also, maybe loosen up on the whole not eating thing and let me do maybe a good deed instead, like helping an old lady bring her cow back from pasture, or feed the chickens for grandma.

10. Women troubles. I am told that when I grow up, there will be a time of the month when God would consider me unclean and I would not be allowed to come to church because it’s shameful. Since God made us all in his image, could He please make a do-over to change that. I’m apologising in advance if this upsets him, but since he is all-powerful it seems silly to allow boys free reign and get girls stuck in the naughty corner, through no fault of their own.

Well… These are the ones I remember.

I was with the priest for nearly an hour, going over each point, explaining with examples and negotiating my forgiveness.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that faith deserted me when I exited my pre-teens. I was too analytical about it. I questioned too much. And perhaps that is the wrong way to go about it.

I used to know guilt and shame back then to an extent and of a depth that has never quite translated into my adult life.

Shame is a powerful blocker. It stultified, it curtailed action. “For shame!”

In its secular incarnation, the most powerfully felt has been a shame of being weak.

Once I acknowledged that there is strength in admitting it, shame deserted me.

This old friend, I am sure, will revisit again sometime. But it has taken a leave of absence at present, and I am grateful for it.

The nightmares that persisted in my childhood years, all related to a shame of somehow having failed to please the Almighty and subsequently being dragged screaming into the fires of the fallen Angel, stopped the moment I no longer believed.

If nothing else, at least now I can get a good night’s sleep. Unashamed.

5 thoughts on “The Definition of Shame

  1. I must confess, I did laugh reading some of your confessions. I found them really humorous. 🙂 Reading them though, I saw your innocence when you were young. The desire to please God made you really conscious and analytical of every little thing you did. I understand how that feels because sometimes I do it too.
    A few months ago, a priest in my church talked about people pulling away from God because they fear Him; which mostly happens depending on the lessons one received when they were growing up. He said he was like that too when he was a child; he feared God, not in a reverential way, but in the “He’ll punish me kind…” That’s how many kids are; they see God as a vengeful being. On the contrary, God is really very understanding, and merciful.
    The priest only came to see things from a whole new perspective much later, when he was old (that’s how he ended up becoming a priest). In his own words, God is like our worldly dads, only way better. He is not vindictive. He understands that we are human beings, and it’s in our nature to sin. Most of the time when we walk with our heads down, tormented because we feel we offended Him, He’s usually staring at us, smiling. Sometimes it’s not as bad as we think it is. He looks at our hearts; whether we do the things we do out of love, care or just malice. But either way, whether we really wronged Him or not, He’s always ready to receive and forgive us.
    I’m sorry for all the scary things that made you ‘give up’ on your faith. For instance, the ‘idol’ thing, it’s not about worshiping idols; the sculptures are only a mere representation of the real thing. They serve as reminders, you know, like a photo… I pray that in the near future you will embrace it again, and hopefully, when that time comes, you will still go to bed happy, feeling at peace with yourself because you will be assured of His mercy and abundant love, and you won’t judge yourself too harshly when you do what we humans do best- err. p/s: He still loves you even now, more than you know it 🙂

    • Thank you, alygeorges, for such a thoughtful reply. I agree with you regarding the different way in which children seem to interact with God, as often through fear of punishment, as through love. I think this may be due to the fact that many of the stories usually shortened and serialised (with pictures and other attractive features for children) are from the Old Testament, where God does appear somewhat more vengeful than in the New one. Maybe children brought up in the Christian faith would benefit from an earlier focus on love, over punishment.
      I’m afraid that (whilst I’m sure not impossible) it is unlikely that I would return to the fold – the prodigal daughter that I am – but I am in no way unhappy to have had these experiences as a child. It is part of my heritage, and I am certain that to many believers (amongst which I count some of my closest friends) it continues to be a source of joy and comfort. Whilst I cannot share their faith, I appreciate its importance to their lives. Thank you again and all the best 🙂 x

  2. Pingback: PROJECT R: Relationship Interrupted on Religion | vicbriggs's blog

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