Goodbye to Guilt, So Long to Shame, Bye Bye to Sorry

When is the last time you knew a person who felt shame? Is shame a feeling/emotion that we have banned from 21st century life? Shame seems to be held in disrepute -- it suggests some kind of old fashioned Protestant moralistic view, or the Catholic confessional -- but it can be a useful feeling if it helps us to face our own failings, and to remedy the injuries we might have done to others. What came out of the election for me was the total absence of shame for lies told. What one often sees in contemporary life is the inability of people to say, "I'm sorry for what I have done to you." Something has been lost on our road to a shame free society. And what has been gained? Shamelessness? Or the new "freedom."

I have been pondering this question for a while as I watch offenders attack the very people they have injured as a means of deflecting guilt from themselves. A few examples from the Yellen book of shame. A publicity seeking real estate tycoon and TV personality attacks the president with no evidence for not being an American citizen, demands that the president show his school records, as the accuser seeks cover for his angry racism, his inability to believe that a black man born into humble circumstances can achieve anything of great distinction without cheating, or being born to a rich father as he was. Time and again this blowhard is proven wrong, yet he proceeds in his attacks, undeterred, aided by a shameless press, as he searches for a truth that he knows is a lie. Here is the epitome of shamelessness. We long for the Joseph Welsh of our time to ask, "Sir, have you no shame?" Yet in a shameless society the question has no value.

A serial Republican adulterer leads in the effort to impeach President Clinton, and goes on to run for the presidency himself, time and again he seems to believe that he can reset the standard of morality like a clock that changes to Daylight Savings Time. Oh, the poor adulterer, male and female. The adulterous one feels that he is trapped in a loveless marriage, she is a modern Anna Karenina caught in forces stronger than herself, but in truth nothing is stronger than her own ego, and is thus free to act on every sexual impulse, and when caught accuses the mate of a failure to understand his/her needs. It is no longer called cheating -- it is "self-realization."

For too many years psychologist's have told us that guilt is a debilitating emotion, we even advertise "guilt free" treats that have less sugar and fat in them, but guilt has served a useful purpose over the centuries -- it has made men and women examine their actions when those actions have hurt another. It has been a corrective to the pull that the self has towards gratification of its every impulse.

This week a famous actor friend of mine died. He had been a good man, generous, amiable, charitable to a fault, a much-loved personality. But many years ago he had injured a mutual friend in need. That friend was a director who had aided the actor's career when the actor was struggling to make a name for himself in films. The actor and director had met in college and the director's career took off shortly after graduation. First thing he did was cast the actor in every film that the director made.

The seesaw that is Hollywood careers soon had the actor on top -- now the star of a major TV series -- and the director dead broke and struggling to find work. When the director asked his actor friend for a job directing an episode of the actor's series, the actor -- aided by his "I'm in charge of the career" wife -- claimed that he could not do so much as he would like to. As successful as he was, the actor dared not associate himself with someone who the Hollywood community considered a failure. The director never spoke to his actor friend again. Fortunately, the director went on to create a beloved TV comedy series and his fortunes were recouped, but both actor and director -- men who needed the friendship of the other -- men with a deep and nourishing shared history -- were alienated for life. All that was required to restore that long-lasting friendship was a simple "I'm sorry. I was wrong" from the actor. Those words are both the easiest and the hardest for us to say. We fail to understand that by not saying these words when they are true and fitting we are the losers. It is remarkable that we still want our children and grandchildren to admit to their wrongdoing by saying "sorry" but we find it so hard to do so in the adult world. In admitting to error or wrongdoing we feel that we are giving up some essential part of self and making ourselves weaker. The reality is that every sorry -- if truly felt -- makes us infinitely stronger.