Examining the short and long of shame and guilt

A couple of years ago, a popular news station reported something rather odd.

A couple of years ago, a popular news station reported something rather odd.

A government contract job paid rather well — $38,000 a year plus perks.  But there was one difficulty.

In the four years the employee held the position, no one ever called or made use of the services of his office.

When asked why he continued in such a useless job, he replied, “But the benefits are so good!”

Really?  $152,000 uselessly squandered and he felt good about it?

Jonathan Swift might have been describing that employee when he said, “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.”

This column isn’t about government waste or sprawling corporations.  It’s a simple question —  “What would make someone accept payment for doing nothing, while suffering no shame, no guilt?”

Law covers the big boundaries.  For example, “Steal a car?  Go to jail!”  But shame extends far beyond legal requirements.

To feel shame, our personal ethics and boundaries must exist somewhere.  But that ‘somewhere’ seems to be disappearing.  Personal pride has shrunk into disgraceful indignity.  And we have very nearly ceased to blush.  We no longer sense our danger.

Shame and guilt aren’t poisons — they are a warning.

It’s a guardrail that spares the richest qualities of our lives.  Deny it and our dangers will multiply.  “Guilt is like the red warning light on the dashboard of the car. You can either stop and deal with the trouble, or smash the light.”

We have invested in shabby characters, and traded private intimacy for public intensity.  We belittle embarrassment and vulnerability at a terrible price!

Our rush to tolerance has been so rapid we have left shame behind and embraced a bit of beastliness instead.

We need to be set upright by shame.  “One of the misfortunes of our time is that in getting rid of false shame we have killed off so much real shame,” spouts Kronenberger.

Sometimes we counsel folk right out of their guilt and remorse and away from character.  Charles Sells’ book, Unfinished Business, says it this way, “I still do it, but I don’t feel guilty about it anymore.”

What will the future hold if there is no shame?

Take a look around!  ‘No shame’ has become no code of conduct, and no morals.

Without blame or accountability, we spawn a self-oriented, inconsiderate society.  Shameful!  And the shame is on us.

Shame is getting scarce, but perhaps we can resurrect it along with privacy and healthy pride.  Shame slaps us into thinking again.  And restores our discretion.

Davie Earle was right.  Shame doesn’t say, “I am a mistake.”  It says, “I made a mistake.” There is no dishonour, no disgrace there.

It takes courage to admit we need shame.  Shame is the short-term kick we need to provoke us into taking our first steps toward quality character.

“The only shame is to have none,” says Blaise Pascal.  And that would be the real shame.  LOL@wltribune.com.

Rita Corbett is a freelance columnist with the Tribune/Weekend Advisor.


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