Shame/Sorrow–What’s Their Impact?

Shame/Sorrow–What’s Their Impact?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Are shame and sorrow the same thing—or, can they be the same thing? For instance, someone can be ashamed for doing something. It may become known to others, or it may remain secret, known only to the person who did it, but resulting in the same admission: I am ashamed of myself.

In the one case, my shame is brought on by others’ awareness of what I’ve done. I fall under their disapproving attitude toward me. I have fallen short of their expectations of me. In the other case, my shame results from within myself. I realize I have departed from being the kind of person I like to think that I am. I have failed to live up to my own standards for myself. There’s an inner disapproval I experience.

Ray Rice, the NFL football player, running back for the Baltimore Ravens, seriously injured his wife, Janay Palmer, knocking her out. He was severely criticized by others, and also penalized for what he did. He surely was shamed into embarrassment about what he did, and may even have determined never to touch his wife again, without her permission. He was shamed, if not into being good, at least into not doing wrong things. He was publicly shamed.

It’s also possible that my shame is totally personal and private. For example, at a time of personal crisis, I may have promised God, in private, that I would do something to honor Him, if only He would come to my aid, such as attending daily mass during Lent. But, should my problem have been solved in my favor, I may proceed to forget about my promise to God, only later realizing my failure, and be ashamed of myself. I have disappointed myself, though no one else (other than God) knows about it.

In either kind of shame, I can be pressured to change myself, either because of outside criticism, or because of internal dissatisfaction with myself. The question is: is this a change for the better? Is the resolve never to do harm or evil again a move in the right direction?

Then, there’s sorrow. Sorrow operates differently than shame. Sorrow, admittedly, can be stimulated by the impact of my action, for instance, on another person, but it rises, not primarily because of the public disesteem or disapproval brought against me by others, but because of the injury or hurt or loss or grief that I have inflicted on some other party. Of course, I can also experience sorrow within myself, without any public dimension to it, because of the injury of disesteem or belittling or ridicule I’ve nurtured within myself against a friend or relative or neighbor—unbeknown to him or her—but painfully evident to me. And I consider this a loss I have inflicted on another, though only within the confines of my own private self.

Shame and sorrow: both uncomfortable, even painful, experiences. Both can impact my behavior for the future, effecting some kind of change within me. Does that make both of them good, then, because they (can) reduce or eliminate wrong, bad, or evil behavior on my part? Is something good when or because evil no longer accompanies it? Or is the elimination of evil only part of the process? Do I still have a way to go, in order to do or achieve something good?

If I am shamed into never doing the wrong thing again, have I thereby become a good person?   Or am I better described as a non-evil person, that is, as a person who never merits disapproval from others, not even from myself? If sorrow, in its turn, revolts at the hurt I have brought into another’s life, or even into my own private self, am I thereby on the way to becoming a better person because I move beyond what others think about me, or how I regard myself, and am moved to repair the harm inflicted because I am genuinely sorry?

But is it always either/or, shame or sorrow? Might it be both: shame and sorrow? The heroes of the ancient world (Achilles, Hercules, Aeneas), may have undergone shame and humiliation for their defeats. The heroes of the biblical/Christian era (our saints: Peter, Mary Magdalene, Ignatius Loyola) were overcome by sorrow for falling to do the good they might have done. The former were publicly shamed at encountering evil, while the latter sorrowed at falling short of the good to be gained. There is a difference. The sacrament of reconciliation is not for the shameful, but for the sorrowful.

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