A few weeks ago, there was an article in The New Yorker about a club for new parents called Loom. The club’s guidelines include the stipulation that members not shame each other. OK, fine. That makes sense, even though it’s strange to have to explicitly tell people not to be horrible to one another. But then they add, “We also prefer that you don’t shame yourself.” Whoa, back up, Loom: I’m down with the idea that you shouldn’t be a malicious bastard toward others. But I absolutely reserve the right to be a malicious bastard to myself. America runs on Dunkin’, but I run on shame.
And shame is taboo these days. You no longer make fun of your roommate for returning from a walk of shame. You congratulate them on their Morning Stroll of Self-Affirmation in Rumpled Evening Attire. Is there shame in the game? I’m told that no, there ain’t. And if you fool someone once, what happens? Nothing, that’s what. It was a mistake to believe your fib, but everyone makes mistakes. And the same would hold true of a second fooling.
I am an outlier, I suppose, because I possess a keenly honed sense of shame and it serves me well. Shame keeps me from getting too fat. Shame helps me hold down my job. I’m not always very charitable, but shame certainly is. The other day, shame even cleaned my garage. My neighbor came over to borrow some WD-40 and I had to rummage among a mess of randomly strewn tools, toys and seldom-used sporting goods. Oh, the shame! By the time he came back to return the can, the place was cleaner than a surgical theater. Shame is my assistant. You want to know why I did something? Hold on, let me put you in touch with shame.
Many people confuse shame with embarrassment. They’re different. You can have embarrassment without shame, and vice versa. Like if I were giving a speech in front of a thousand people and my pants fell down, I would feel embarrassment but not shame. But when I don’t tip a busker, I feel shame but not embarrassment. That’s because embarrassment usually requires a witness. Since nobody else is privy to the tortured internal deliberations caused by that open ukulele case—the smallest bill I have is a five, and is this rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” really worth a five?—I’m not embarrassed when I avoid eye contact and step up my pace. But I am ashamed. Of course I am.
And yes, it’s entirely possible to order the shame-and-embarrassment combo. In eighth grade, I represented my school at the county spelling bee. I got cocky in the first round and breezed through “unique,” forgetting the second “u.” Eliminated, just like that. And I was wearing a leather bomber jacket, like I was cool. Yeah, Mr. Cool Guy, whose parents drove him an hour to the big spelling bee, getting the first word wrong. How do you spell “loser”? S-H-A-M-E.
That’s merely one example from my vast portfolio of shameworthy life experiences. At any given moment, I can summon memories of things I said or did decades ago and make myself cringe. When I was in kindergarten, I kicked dirt into Lissa Valestine’s ice cream cone while running around playing The Dukes of Hazzard, and she looked really sad about that. That’s one of my earliest memories. Imagine all the wonderful experiences that have been forgotten in order to make room in my brain for that. And yet: That was the last time I ever kicked dirt in anyone’s ice cream. Shame is useful like that.
Most of the time, when you witness a shameful situation, the perpetrator is too oblivious to recognize the crime. Go to the beach and you’ll see what I mean. According to my own beach code of conduct, I can go shirtless or sit down but not both at the same time. Shirtless and sitting is a bad look. That area needs to be stretched out, not folded up. Does this policy mean that I’m body-shaming myself? Then so be it. If I got into better shape, sit-down-with-no-shirt shape, then I wouldn’t have anything to worry about. But take a look around any given beach and you’ll see that my vanity runs close to the surface compared to the general populace, because clearly most people have not heard of my shirt-or-stand rule. By pointing that out, am I body-shaming a hypothetical beach crowd? And if so, do you think I should feel bad about that? Well then, you’re shame-shaming me, and that can’t be right either.
Look, I don’t want you to feel bad about everything you do. Not every busker can be tipped, not every door can be held, not every birthday can be remembered. But everyone should bathe in a sense of disgust and regret every once in a while. It’s good for you. Why, I’m ashamed right now. You know all the hurricanes lately? I haven’t donated any money. But I’m about to. And then I’ll have a few moments of peace before my thoughts return to my unique problems. Unique: two u’s. Never spelled it wrong again. ◆
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