Friday, August 13, 2010

On guilt and shame

A conversation over on Mormon Matters has me thinking about guilt and shame. And it's related to my post here earlier this week on Section 121 and how we exert influence in our families.

The Oxford American Dictionary (the one that's been on my desk for nearly 30 years) says guilt is "the fact of having committed some offense" and "a feeling that one is to blame for something." Shame, on the other hand, is "a painful mental feeling aroused by a sense of having done something wrong or dishonorable or improper or ridiculous."

So guilt is a fact and a feeling rising out of that fact. Shame, on the other hand, is by definition painful, and is driven by the sense of having done something. Also of interest from my dictionary is the verb form of shame: "to bring shame on, to make ashamed, to compel by arousing feelings of shame."

My wife and I have taken (and taught) a number of parenting classes over the years, and we've learned that shaming behavior is not good. It can damage relationships, and it can damage a child's development. And it seems wholly inconsistent with the characteristics taught in Section 121.

I've observed shaming behavior as a near art form. In Germany over 30 years ago, you could board a street car without a ticket. But if the conductor happened to board and catch you without a ticket, not only were you subject to a fine, but also to a shaming lecture in front of all the passengers. On my second or third day in Mannheim, I boarded the streetcar with my fellow missionaries to go to church. I had purchased a 72-hour pass for the streetcar to get me through the weekend, but the moment I saw the conductor get on board, I realized I'd left the pass in my other suit. Before she got to me, the conductor began berating an old man on the car. Her speech about how all the other passengers had paid and why hadn't he, and how his service in the war didn't give him a free pass to ride the streetcar, dug into my embarrassed heart. I knew that if he was subject to her ridicule, how much more would I, a young foreigner, be deserving of whatever she threw at me?

When she got to me, however, I explained my predicament. I told her the truth – my ticket was in my other suit. She noticed my name tag, and my three clone-like companions, paused (while my heart stopped beating, I'm sure), and quietly instructed me to buy another ticket from the driver. I was guilty. I felt guilty. But I had not been shamed. Indeed in my case the mercy she showed me was a gift far greater than I had expected. I can only assume now that she had seen plenty of missionaries produce their passes with such regularity, so she was disposed to believe me. Whatever the reason, I was grateful. And I never boarded another streetcar in Mannheim without a pass.

Alma taught his son Corianton about the value of guilt as a means of helping us to know when to turn back to the Lord: "only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance" (Alma 42:29).

I'm impressed when I remember the care my parents took when correcting me to allow me to keep my dignity, to help me learn right from wrong but also to have the hope that I could learn and improve. It is a lesson that I've learned slowly as a parent, and that I continue to learn.

No comments:

Post a Comment