The deepest and most primitive emotion of the human being is that of shame. It is the feeling that something is wrong with us. This should be distinguished from the feeling that we have done something wrong (that is called guilt). Shame is the feeling that we are something wrong. It is the first emotion ascribed to Adam and Eve as they hide in their shame. Shame makes us want to hide and cover ourselves for it reveals us in a wounded state and intensely vulnerable. It is the deep cry within us that says, “No! Don’t look at me!” It is also one of the major engines that drives the modern world. In a consumerist culture where emotions and passions are the primary tools of motivation, shame has taken a primary position.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that!” is the sound of shame translated into fashion sense. The embarrassment that accompanies “last year’s wardrobe” or “outdated” technology is a tool. The point is to get consumers to buy something. Of course, purchasing the stuff of life is a wholesome, normal activity: we must eat; we must clothe ourselves; we must have shelter. But in an economy whose basis is consumption, overconsumption is the normative rule. Simple need is insufficient to maintain a consumer economy. Deeper, more primal instincts are required in order to fuel the activities of consumption and debt.
Shame has become a source for the economic engines of our world. Most psychologists agree that shame is experienced as “unbearable.” We react quickly to rid ourselves of it. In most cases we inwardly change shame into another, more bearable emotion. On average, men turn shame into anger. If someone’s anger suddenly flashes at you, the most likely culprit involved is that you “shamed” them. This is what is meant (originally) by “giving offense.” Women, on average, translate shame into depression: they simply turn inward and feel unworthy, unloved, inadequate, ugly, fat, etc.
If shame is over-used, it only achieves anger and depression. The masters of shame (those who help drive the psychology of a consumer culture) are generally more subtle. The shaming involved in fashion dances along a tightrope that creates sufficient shame for shopping while stopping short of anger and depression. Shopping is self-medication for our culturally-induced shame.
The forces of politics in our modern culture are equally consumer-driven (far more than by political ideology). Political allegiance is most often reflective about how we feel about topics. Helping us to “feel” are the same sales and advertising engines that drive our purchases of consumer goods. We “consume” politics and shame our opponents. The politics of shame have become a dominating force in popular culture. More than disagreeing with other people, we label them: “racist,” “homophobic,” “misogynist,” “eco-terrorist,” badges intended to shame. We do not engage ideas – we engage our own shame. When we label someone we create a category of shame – one that defines them and ourselves – all of us the offspring of shame.
That a large number of people “feel good” about themselves in our modern culture is a testament to their ability to access the consumption used to assuage their shame. But for others, the shame is almost constant and inescapable. Those who are less than attractive, overweight, or otherwise unable to address their shame have little choice other than to slip into depression or other forms of self-loathing.
I have wonder if the culture of piercing among youth (not universally) is something of an angry response (and thus a shame response) to the consumer fashions of our culture. A girl’s face with multiple piercings seems an angry shout at the shame-filled cult of beauty. Of course, it has its own fashion sense – but it represents something of a camaraderie among those who hate the shame. More intense responses, deeply illustrative of self-loathing, can be found in activities such as cutting and various forms of anorexia and bulimia.
The life of the church directly confronts our shame. The language of the Baptismal rite is pointed directly at human shame. In its most classical form, candidates for Baptism are naked. Today this is only true of infants. But adults are often lightly clothed (shorts, t-shirt, etc.) in Orthodox practice. Our nakedness represents our shame. Originally, we were naked and unashamed (Gen. 2:25) – but we lost our original beauty (clothed in light) and now experience nakedness as shame.
I have often thought of the power involved in the liturgical experience of “public” nakedness. Men were not exposed to women nor women to men. But nakedness remained powerful and deeply shame-filled. Robbed of sexual content nakedness reveals our “inadequacy” and “weakness” as a human person.
In Baptism the naked candidates stand facing the West, Das Abendland, the “land of the evening,” or the Occident, the place of the fall or setting. Prayers of exorcism are said over them. They renounce Satan and all of his works, ultimately spitting on him, “despising the shame”.
Facing the East, the Orient, the “place of rising” – indeed the place of “Christ” (for “Orient is His Name” – Zech 6:12 LXX), the candidates profess faith in Christ and receive the Creed. Following a pre-baptismal anointing, the candidates are plunged three times into the blessed water.
The first action following the Baptism is the clothing. The priest says:
The servant of God, N., is clothed in the robe of righteousness, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
And a small hymn is sung:
Grant to me the robe of light, O Most Merciful Christ our God, Who clothe Yourself with light as with a garment.
The entrance into the Kingdom of God is an abandonment of the kingdom of shame. It is a land in which we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ Himself, with no need for shame or fear. We pray in every service that we may at last stand before Christ “without shame or fear.”
The admonition, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2) could very easily be directed towards our shame. What power should the world’s shame have over those who have been clothed in Christ Himself?
Shame is not entirely negative. It’s primal power is a key component in the grace of compunction (tears of repentance). “A broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). That capacity for shame to open the depths of the heart can, in the hands of a skilled confessor or spiritual father, be a key to transformation. Thus we do not try to hide our shame or evade it – but embrace it, like the nakedness of Baptism. In the liturgy of confession our shame is transformed into the righteousness of Christ in the tears the fathers call a “Second Baptism.”
Christ Himself entered our world and “on His shoulders bore our shame.” The culture of shame is a demonic construction, reveling in human weakness and manipulating our vulnerabilities. In Holy Baptism, Christ tramples down shame by shame and clothes us in the shining garment of His own Light.