Lately, I've been reading and hearing a lot about shame, shamelessness, saying--or not saying--sorry and how shame impacts our lives. I know a lot of people who greatly dislike shame and everything that comes with it; red cheeks, a loss of words and looking like an idiot are some. There are a couple of things I have learned from it all:
- feeling ashamed and feeling sorry are not the same thing
- shame is a social construct--we are not born with an understanding of shame
- shame and it's cousin embarrassment are culturally defined
- shame is often seen as a bad thing that should be expunged from our lives
- shame is greatly misunderstood
The fact that we feel shame, is a social lifesaver. It keeps us from alienating ourselves from our fellow humans (who we need to get through the day) and helps us maintain our rank in the social hierarchy. Shame keeps us from calling our boss a jackass and losing our job, it helps us discover what is socially and culturally acceptable in the group that we are in, it strengthens our social confidence and it helps us save face when something goes wrong--like tripping over our own feet in public.
Our physical reactions to shame are very recognizable to everyone because we all feel them. We all blush, perspire and fumble for words. This makes us relatable. It says 'I realize I did something outside of the social norm'. This allows us to laugh away the faux-pas instead of getting annoyed or upset about it.
An example to illustrate; I'm standing on the platform at the train station, waiting for the train to come along. Suddenly, someone crashes into me, hurting my arm and almost knocking me off of my feet. I turn around and see a young man clambering to his feet. If he shows signs of shame, my first reaction of annoyance will fade and I'll let him make his apologies so he can say that he tripped over a bag and he can ask me if I'm okay. If he shows no signs of shame, no explanation or apology can keep me from being cranky.
Hellenic society was structured in a set hierarchy. Everyone had his or her place and it was understood you did not step out of the norm. Listening to the warning signs shame sends out, allowed everyone to maneuver themselves throughout the various hierarchal interactions. It's not odd the ancient Hellens saw great honor in shame; one who knew his or her place was to be honored for it. It kept life clear and organized.
This Delphic maxims is a solid reminder of the place shame has. There is nothing shameful (point intended) about feeling shamed. I'm a firm believer in saying you are sorry; yes, even if you don't really mean it. It's the social thing to do and should not be taken lightly. Saying sorry means you understand you had a part in what happened. You might not have had the biggest part, you might not even be wrong, but you had a part in it and that should be acknowledged. For those who would argue that saying sorry in this manner means giving away a piece of yourself or letting others walk all over you; I respect that opinion. I just don't think it's true.
I give nothing away, nor do I let others walk all over me. I accept my part on the affair and as a consequence, I show respect for the other party as well as myself. I revere a sense of shame and do so with pride, just like the ancient Hellens.