The Definition of Shame

Icarus

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.