o listen to the freethinking crowd, shame seems to be the only thing worth feeling ashamed about. There was a time when I believed them and confessed my “Catholic guilt” — the itch of my soul longing for the scratch of confession, repentance, and rebirth. Mea culpa, I said, in so many words — I am wretched for feeling so wretched. But it has become increasingly obvious that shame infuriates the immoralist, not because he is a kindly fellow who hates to see his Christian compadres down in the dumps, but because the stubborn presence of shame always indicates the stubborn presence of an ideal.
Consider the phenomenon of shame: the professional thief hardly blushes to be called a thief. It is the man who sees his act of thieving as contrary to his ideal of honesty who feels ashamed. When we are ashamed of an action, we say it “doesn’t represent the real me” or “I wasn’t being myself.” No one is shamefaced over an action unless he rejects it as something that does not belong to his personal identity.
This is why, when one experiences shame, the easiest way out is to develop an identity that matches one’s actions — making our immoral actions the natural emanation of “the real me.” Ashamed of being a drunkard? Just make an identity — you’re a devil-may-care Irishman. Ashamed of your sexual infidelity? Just make an identity — you’re a player, or better yet, a polyamorist. Ashamed of stealing from the poor? Remember, you’re a businessman. Instead of correcting the action so it fits with our ideal identity, we match our identity to fit the action. We skip over the need to amend our ways by quickly amending our mind.
This ethical u-turn has become our culture’s primary means of moral argument. We do not defend our lives by an appeal to an ideal; we defend our ideals by appealing to our lives. Against the charge that prostitution is slavery, we offer no arguments. We take shelter in articles trumpeting “the real lives of sex workers,” as if the moral rectitude of prostitution were adequately defended by the existence of prostitutes. Against the charge that abortion is murder, we offer the real, first-person narratives of women who have had abortions. Moral arguments are made, and usually won, by the trump card of life-experience: “as a communist,” “as a woman,” “as a Christian,” “as a trans man,” we say, and voila — counterarguments melt like snow. Our lives have become adequate defenses of our ideals, to the point that, if one does not have the weapon of a particular life, one cannot defend an ideal: “You say you are pro-life,” we hear, “but do you even know someone who has had an abortion?”
Our age is not an age of identity because we all sat around, contemplated, and found nestled in our psyche a whole batch of identity-nuggets that our forefathers had missed — our sex, race, gender, orientation, culture, and ideology. Our age is possessed by the immense will to identify ourselves within ever-expanding categories of being because it is easier to change our names than it is to change our actions.
As Christianity declines, declaring an identity becomes a new means of confession, penance and redemption — a way to become whole and good after a rupture with our childhood ideals. The careful maintenance of shame is an act by which a person, having failed to behave according to his ideal, refuses to christen his new behavior into a new ideal.
Shame is an anti-identitarian emotion — it won’t call racism “being European” any more than it will call adultery “being a swinger.” Shame lives in the painful gap between who-we-are and what-we-do — it is a bodily acknowledgment of the non-identity of the two. In the moment of shame, we live out the experience of not being what our actions suggest — we feel the need to cover up and hide from the gaze that might imagine otherwise. Indeed, what is shame but the burning desire to shout out, “Oh, but I am not that identity!” Not a whore, not a fool, not a villain, not a beast — not, in short, what my mistakes or your gaze might suggest.
Shame, then, is a side-altar that continues to burn incense to the ideals neglected on the high-altar of our daily doings. Shame burns, but it is a purgatorial fire. The shamefaced man suffers in the sight of the Heaven that he lacks, but feels it is better to suffer then call his lack “Heaven.”
The castigation of shame as a bad emotion amounts to the demand that we drop our ideals — or rather, the demand that we describe our lives as already having attained their ideal. But if our ideals amount to nothing more than a description of our lives — nothing is required of us. There is no guilt over failure, true, but only because there is no thrill over the effort or joy over the genuine success. Walker Percy notes that “the word boredom did not enter the language until the eighteenth century. No one knows its etymology. One guess is that bore may derive from the French verb bourrer, to stuff.” He precedes to speculate that “boredom is the self being stuffed with itself.” What better way to stuff the self with itself than to castigate and deny the value of shame — the emotion that refuses the easy road of identification, saying, as it were, “I am better than this.” To break with shame is to stuff oneself with a image of self that is really a mirror image of one’s everyday existence — and thus to neuter the possibility of any adventures in conversion, repentance and genuine change.
It is easy to mock the Christian for his hypocrisy. It is harder to mock the age, because we have so carefully crafted our ideals to fit effortlessly with our lives — we “love” and “get along” and “don’t kill anyone” — that it would take a real act of strength to break with the ideals of the age and thus end up as a hypocrite.
Our shame-shaming culture makes a mockery of the Christian who feels ashamed of this or that action, not because the world offers some rich state of peace that the Christian is missing out on, but because the shamefaced Christian is a reminder of the ideals that we have cast aside in order to be comfortable. We must either call their shame shameful and ridiculous or confront the possibility that the reason we so rarely feel guilt or shame is that we have the lowered the ceiling of our ideals to fit our lives; that we are stuffed with our daily selves; that we aim at nothing we have not already reached. Getting used to this claustrophobic existence is a prerequisite for a happy, modern life — abandoning it, in shame, is a prerequisite for conversion.