Nothing to Be Ashamed About
Over the last 50 years there has been, especially from our brothers and sisters of the USA, an increased tendency to find shame, well, a shameful thing. And in finding it a shameful thing, have rejected it as a virtue. A recent ‘meme’ I read on facebook had shame characterised as a barrier to spiritual transformation. This rejection needs revisiting, as much because there is a misunderstanding about what shame is, and also, because, in this misunderstanding, it is not recognised that much of the world’s travails are directly related to a lack of shame.
Let me start this exploration with the words of Baha’u’llah from the 19th Century. “Verily I say: The fear of God hath ever been a sure defence and a safe stronghold for all the peoples of the world. It is the chief cause of the protection of mankind, and the supreme instrument for its preservation. Indeed, there existeth in man a faculty which deterreth him from, and guardeth him against, whatever is unworthy and unseemly, and which is known as his sense of shame. This, however, is confined to but a few; all have not possessed, and do not possess, it. It is incumbent upon the kings and the spiritual leaders of the world to lay fast hold on religion, inasmuch as through it the fear of God is instilled in all else but Him.” (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 27)
Two ideas stand out from Baha’u’llah’s disposition here. The first is pointing to a definition of shame, which I take as meaning that there is an ability to: recognise what is unworthy and unseemly; and the result of this is that SHAME prevents a person from acting in that manner. In other words, without performing any unseemly act we can recognise the possibility of it within us, and SHAME is a tendency to avoid those acts. The second point is that Baha’u’llah recognises that FEW have a sense of SHAME. So, rather than being something that the mass of humanity is beset by in some way, shame is a more like the name for a natural supreme talent in recognising unseemliness and being that it is something one does not take into one’s present or future relationship. Rather than being a less transformed person, a person with shame has the Olympic athlete potential for transformation.
Therefore, to the rest of us, Baha’u’llah encourages to some competency through the fear of God and obeying God’s Law.
Returning to the power of shame, then, what would be that something a shameful person would recognise with themselves that they avoid taking into their future. I suggest that this something correlates to another of Baha’u’llah’s teachings that, “To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man. Those virtues that befit his dignity are forbearance, mercy, compassion and loving-kindness towards all the peoples and kindreds of the earth.” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 214)
Perhaps the shameful person recognises, with a certain acuity of insight, that within themselves is a ‘beast’. Surely that ‘beast’ is none other than the beast neurological scientists have described by labelling the fundamental human brain processes as ‘reptilian’ and ‘monkey / paleo-mammalian’. And surely that beast is the one we all recognise as that rageful, lustful, covetous being who, after we have acted in its name, dissolves in the shadows, leaving only our tears in anguish for the hurt and separation we have caused. Yet to bring clarity to the definition of shame, SHAME is when the rage, lust, and covetousness is being recognised but not being acted upon.
On the other hand, the shameless are all lust and rage and covetousness. So why do some who believe they are on a path of transformation reject the value of shame? Here we must see where the ‘beast’ become a clever ‘EGO’ and as a clever ego, manipulates the discomforts of real transformation against us.
Many contemporary transformative ideas have come to the misunderstanding on shame through the work of Helen Shucman and William Thetford who developed ‘A Course in Miracles’ (ACIM) based on the dreams of Helen Shucman. In an attempt to show that reality is not as we think or see it is but rather a perfect realm from which the ego hides for the sake of its own persistence. Schucman, like mystics of the past including Sufis, recognise the fundamental barrier to ‘seeing’ reality is our tendency to pick a fight with ourselves. The solution to this is to recognise that we are already created ‘sons of God’ and that there is nothing to fight. By their commentary, Schucman and Thetford seem to define ego as the ‘making distinctions in order to make separations and fight ourselves’. Well so far, so good. However in this, Shucman and Thetford seem also to be influenced by the psychiatric notions of the early twentieth century and conveying the idea that shame is at the heart of neurosis, and therefore is a fight-related element that can be disappeared by shining a light on it.
However, there is another way to look at shame, which I have pointed to above, and also explain why shame is likely to be seen at the heart of neurosis. The ordinary shameless mortal, looking at a child with the tendency to shame will see a shy creature, keeping its own opinion, perhaps demure, and over time, certainly long-suffering. Trapped at every turn by the shamelessness around it, the shameful creature has no options except to turn unto its own loops of logic, becoming trapped by its own ego into a resentment for and fight against the shameless. Indeed, in the paradox that Shucman points in ACIM is present here. The shameful person also recognises the shamelessness of themselves and so, under the conditions of entrapment, shame and shameless fight into an embittered resentment.
Rather than victimise the shameful one, Baha’u’llah sees that this one is the potential olympic champion of the whole world of human extraordinariness, and points to us that the great power of the shameful one lies in their natural attraction to nobility. Baha’u’llah also rejects the proposition that people, by recognising that they are sons of God, for indeed we all are, is enough to restrain most of us from shameful actions. Rather the presence of the shameful person is the exemption that makes the rule, the clear distinction that most of us will reach extraordinariness through submission to the laws of God.
The challenge for the shameful child is that most of us have missed the point of the shameful child. In other situations, ordinary parents, seeing that their child can do calculus or run like the wind at age 8, do as much as possible to encourage them, and look around for a great teacher and trainer to assist the burgeoning potential. However, in missing the point that shame is an indication of a great spiritual potentiality, we fail to encourage the child’s exploration of that shame, nor look around at for a great trainer for their burgeoning spiritual potentiality.
This is becoming a thing of the past under the development of the children and youth training programs of the Baha’i Faith. However let me make some comments on things that might inform the development of children’s training from shame. The first is that any valuable spiritual training provides the child access to the source of its own nobility. For the child of shame this is like the sun shining on to both the beastly recesses and the mirror mosaic of virtues. Here the child of shame sees the beauty and nobility that they have only vaguely deduced. Access to the source of nobility comes from two integral disciplines: prayer and meditation; and the spiritual teachings of Baha’u’llah and other manifestations of God and even lesser teachers. From these sources, the child of shame, already able to recognise the ‘beast’ now learns how to tame it, placate it, exploit it effectively for the great game ahead. Like any trainer of ‘beast’ the child learns to speak softly, calmly, laughingly to the beast within. The child doesn’t reject the beast, for this is a fine beast, a wonderful beast. And in accepting the beast, the child of shame finds an extraordinary powerful friend, protector, and supporter. A beast that can be ridden into the arena of endeavour.
Shame’s great resolution is to be able to look upon the beast with confidence and capability, to find accountability in being noble. Not to fight the beast any more than one would hit or chastise a young working horse or dog for being unruly, but to look for the source of that unruliness and find that training method that directs the energies into great feats and great exhilarations. The child of shame, growing into an extraordinary adult, will always be acutely attuned to the restless power of the beast, know its awful potential, and be ashamed.