Shame is a word I’ve never given much thought to, but I heard an interesting message about it in church. The pastor was talking about the various “bosses” we might have in our lives. For example, if money is our boss, it could lead to greed. I know people like this. They’re doing well financially but don’t know how to enjoy their money.
Our boss could be our ego and we become “my way or the highway” people. This can make us controlling. Image could be our boss. This apparently is true of many of us, who take selfies and post our lives on social media. Fear can also rule our lives since it is the greatest motivator of human behavior.
These bosses sounded bad enough but none of them are as cruel as shame. I didn’t know the difference between shame and guilt but learned that guilt is feeling bad for what we did, while shame is feeling bad about who we are. Guilt can actually be a healthy emotion that keeps us from destructive behavior. Guilt is temporary. Shame is permanent.
We can’t shake shame. It robs us of our confidence and energy. It can lead to depression and a feeling of hopelessness. It causes us to isolate from others. Sometimes we treat shame by “numbing” it with pills or alcohol. We have plenty of places to numb our shame in Forest Park. However, it brings to mind a U2 lyric: “In my dream, I was drowning my sorrows. But my sorrows, they learned to swim.”
As much as we try, we can’t drown shame. We have to deal with it, and I’m convinced it’s the boss of many lives. In fact, I think the Recession has made shame epidemic. In good economic times, we can distract ourselves with toys and entertainment. Now, many can no longer afford to play this way, while economic setbacks reinforce feelings of shame.
It’s an all-too-familiar story but I read about a husband, already suffering from shame, losing his job and being unable to support his family. His wife became the breadwinner. She didn’t criticize him for failing to contribute, but he was ashamed he had lost his identity as a provider.
How many times has a scenario like that been played out during these hard times? How many of us feel like we’ve been treated unfairly by economic forces beyond our control? I think this bitterness has contributed to our bizarre political scene, with the rise of Trumpism and the recent exit of Great Britain from the European Union.
I didn’t know how pervasive the problem was until I talked with a young Forest Park woman, who told me many in her generation are feeling shame. They were told that if they went to college and worked hard, they would find a career. Now, they’re burdened by debt and can’t even find entry-level jobs. They feel like something is wrong with them.
Shame may be permanent, but we can make it bearable. The pastor suggested getting a new boss of our lives. I’ve seen people in recovery trade in a cruel boss for a benevolent one. In the meantime, we don’t have to “believe everything we think.” We can perform reality checks on our negative thoughts — because shame is an irrational feeling that has nothing to do with who we are or what we accomplish.
When we’re feeling shame, we should remember the famous words from the Pogo comic strip: “We have seen the enemy and it is us.”
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.