In the first category are things that seemed appalling at the time, but later were revealed as being no more or less shameful than things others do in the course of their everyday lives. I often share a story with my students of how I dumped out an entire gallon of water I'd lugged along on a Boy Scout trip rather than let the troop confiscate it for making Kool-Aid. My Boy Scout career didn't survive that, but it was something I'd done in a fit of pique with consequences no more severe than my social isolation and the prevention of some tooth decay among a group of South Alabama early teenagers. I tell my students the story to illustrate the spirit moving poor farmers in Stalin's Soviet Union who destroyed their tools and crops rather than let the state confiscate them.
This kind of shameful memory, as well as the others that still seem so severe that they must be kept close, are all the part of the price of learning. If you never had done something you were ashamed of then or now, you must be pretty alone and despised, because social interaction puts us to tests that we can never score 100 on. If you were perfect in your shame-free state, you'd be seen as putting on airs. No one wants to be reminded of their flaws by being near a flawless person all the time.
Obviously, some conduct is so gravely harmful that criminal penalties attach as well. People who are willing to routinely engage in such behavior have no sense of shame, so the law must step in to restrain them. This tendency on their part represents a grotesque failure in their upbringing, or perhaps a combination of being taught poor social skills and mental illness.
But for the rest of us, myself included, when we've committed shameful acts, we were experimenting with our boundaries and discovered they weren't as far away as we had imagined. It's the price of living. Especially careful parenting and wide reading on the part of children can mitigate much of the potential for later shame, but not all of it. This is because appearances can be deceiving -- we think we're acting selfishly but harmlessly, and then get caught or realize the harm only after the fact. And sometimes others (whom we've harmed in a shameful way) can tell us one thing but then quickly change their minds or realize they were lying, and in the meantime we've done them wrong based on a faulty picture of them.
The painful memories of shameful acts help us never to repeat them, provided we were susceptible to shame in the first place. I know I'll never, ever do certain things again even if I were offered all the money in the world. Recidivist criminals are cut from different cloth and may not recognize any morality except their own momentary advantage or pleasure. But for the rest of us, shame is the ultimate teacher. We have to be glad it's there, even as we recoil from its reminders.
|Oh, do I remember doing that....|