Shame on Me

“Shame is like that. If you will accept it – if you will drink the cup to the bottom – you will find it very nourishing: but try to do anything else with it and it scalds.”
                                    — C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, p. 61.

Shame is a strange thing; it can be regarded in two completely different ways. If you search for it on Amazon, you will find hundreds of books to help you relieve yourself of it. It is the negative, convicting emotion that we have violated a moral standard. Psychologists provide guidance in relieving yourself from it because it can lead to unhealthy, borderline behaviors if it's not managed properly. Our culture promotes narcissistic and borderline traits; these are a natural side-effect of consumerism. If I'm going over your head with the jargon, I apologize, and I will take a step back to explain.

We live in a culture where we are set up to be failures. This is because traditional values, like family, honesty, kindness, and selflessness, have been abandoned to make room for a lifestyle of individualism and self-interest. Traditional values don't lend themselves to mass production and sale of goods, which now drive our society. Our individual quest for success, pleasure and material fulfillment do. The problem is that you can never reach the level where you have enough, which is what makes the system work. It needs discontent. That keeps you working harder and buying more things. That also means you can never reach lasting fulfillment, and the character it develops within you.

Some people manage their failure at acquiring success, pleasure and money in an unhealthy way. They start to believe they truly are failures. That pain leads to one of two coping mechanisms. You either do everything in your power to prove that you are better than other people, and use other people to that end, or you do everything to deny your failures and manipulate people to believe you are someone you're not. Both of these are self-centered. One is narcissistic, the other is borderline. We live in a culture which is broadly described by these traits, though some people have them on such a level that they are diagnosed with a personality disorder.

Psychologists can help you with this—this sense that you need to control or manipulate people to validate yourself—but it feels to me a bit like a Bandaid. Positive thinking about yourself and finding a healthy outlet for feelings of failure are good things, but still strand us in a culture where we can never measure up.

Here's the big problem, and it's the other side of the coin. Shame is a good thing. It is what keeps a politician from texting women photos of his naked parts. It is what keeps us from promoting gun sales that end up in the hands of terrorists. It is what helps us to make the decision to stay true to our marriage vows. It's what keeps us from destroying the environment. If you are denying shame, or learning to suppress it when it blocks you from your goals, you may find yourself crossing lines, far from what God wants for you. In a secular, consumer society, that's not necessarily a problem (it may even help you succeed), but for a Christian, it contradicts who we were created to be, in God's image.

C.S. Lewis touches on that in his novella The Great Divorce. Taken correctly, in its full measure, shame is something that helps you grow as a person. It keeps you from crossing a line that would dishonor you and the Lord. If you do cross one, it can reinforce different behaviors you expect from yourself in the future. Taken in any other way, it is simply pain, and we all want to avoid pain. We need a sense of shame that will guide us to lead moral lives or accept forgiveness if we fail, but then departs as we move beyond our failure.

The solution is to get your values set correctly. If you are wounded by a sense of failure or abandonment that stems from your childhood, you need to receive healing. It was not your fault. You then need to move ahead with a conviction to live a life worthy of your calling in Christ (Eph. 4:1). You have an outlet for your failure—your heavenly Father will forgive any sin you bring to him. You are not your sins; you are a new creation in Christ and you are his child. From any point of failure, you can turn and receive a fresh start.

The values of our culture are distorted. You are not defined by the car you drive, your physical appearance, how many fans you have, or how many experiences you can collect. If you believe otherwise, your chances of fulfillment, however temporary, are marginal. If you fix your eyes on things that last forever, and invest yourself in the people around you, you cannot fail. Love never fails (1 Cor. 13:8).

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