Monday, March 25, 2013

Shame I

Scott Bradley

Shame, when experienced, is joined at the hip with name. It is a sense of having fallen short of an idealized identity that one wishes to be, but obviously is not. I said 'when experienced' because there is also the other shame that exists only as an idea; this is the shame that we believe other people should experience as when we say, 'shame on you', or when we 'name and shame' someone. This might be better refered to as 'blame', but these three, name, shame and blame, are inextricably related.

Unquestionably, there is a place for shame in the human experience, as a helpful impetus to change. Mencius, like other moralists, saw it as an absolutely necessary driving force in the work of self-cultivation. Shamelessness is a cardinal sin. Even the theoretical sage, even when free of every specific behavior that might elicit shame, would still not be shameless. For shame is the prerequisite to sagacity; it is that which brings us to and keeps us on the straight and narrow. We also call this 'conscience', the structural apparatus by which we make ourselves toe-the-line. Freud called it the 'superego', the inner potty-training parent and sometimes tyrant.

This is the standard operating procedure by which we train our children and keep ourselves and society properly regulated. For those who fail to follow the dictates of shame, we have jail or various forms of lethality.

Daoism takes a radically different approach. In fact, it seems so counter-intuitive to the way we typically function, that arguments for it seem doomed from the start. An analogous critique might be that found in the Xin-Xin Ming to the effect that "to set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind." This is a disease so prevalent, so innate, that to confront it on its own terms would be futile, not to mention hypocritical. It cannot be argued against any more than one could successfully argue against argumentation. At best, it can only be presented as an invitation to a possibility.

Once again this brings us to that thorny issue of 'good and evil', and not wishing to deal with that here, I will only speak of that sense of shame that arises from personal failure and that does not significantly impact upon others. Harming others is an entirely different arena.

Daoism understands shame as an expression of egoic self-identity. One falls short of how one wants to be seen by one's self and by others. One does not thereby fall short of how one actually is, however. How one actually is, this is where Daoism begins and ends. There is either affirmation or there is not. Provisional affirmation is not affirmation. True affirmation is a kind of shamelessness. And like the disease of the discriminating mind, when the mechanism of shame is transcended, all that that mechanism hoped to achieve but could not by virtue of its internal contradictions, just happens, naturally.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

1 comment:

  1. Going through a rough patch with work and money (namely, lack of those two things), I've been quite down on myself in the past few weeks, feeling shame at not being able to support my family and generally feeling like a failure. Your recent posts have pulled me out of that harmful hallucination. Thank you, thank you, thank you.


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