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Shame Too

David Cowles

Sep 28, 2023

“Feel shame when it is appropriate, but never regret what you’ve done, and certainly never regret who you are.”

Shame has a bad name these days…and deservedly so! “You should be ashamed of yourself,” was a common refrain of authority figures in the 1950s. Translation: you are shameful; it’s not just something you did that’s shameful but who you are. I can’t think of anything more devastating, especially if you’ve invested your accuser with some sort of moral authority (e.g., a parent, teacher, rabbi).

When we feel shame, our first instinct is to cover our faces, even though we fully well know we’d still be seen…and look even more ridiculous. We want to crawl into a hole, just like the hole we’ll ‘crawl’ into at the end, and ‘pull the earth over us’. Bottom line, we want to disappear, to melt into the background, to become undifferentiated dust.

In Thoughts While Shaving (December 13, 2022), we distinguished episodic shame from existential shame. Now let’s contrast episodic shame with regret. 

Thirty years ago, I bought a book (Zen and Hasidism) for a friend. He was Jewish (not observant) and professed a keen interest in Zen Buddhism, so the book’s title suggested itself. At that time books cost about 50% more in nominal dollar terms than they do now, that’s 500% more in real (inflation adjusted) dollars…and we were all ‘church mice’ back then. So buying books for people was not an everyday event.

Nevertheless, I bought it…and placed it on my bookshelf…where it sat. You see, I hadn’t given the book to its rightful owner when I first had the chance and after that, it always seemed a bit awkward: Why this book, why this time? 

Compounding the problem, my friend heedlessly moved to the ‘wrong coast’, and in those days, mailing a package was an expensive and generally unpleasant (no FedEx then) experience. A couple of years ago, my friend passed away – at the age of 80; he’d had a good run, I suppose. 

Guess what? His book was still on my shelf. Half out of guilt, half out of curiosity, I pulled it down a few days ago and thumbed through it. In retrospect, I’m not sure this book was right for my friend after all; but on the other hand…

I was reading my friend’s book when I came across a line that seemed apropos: “Feel shame, not regret!” I am ashamed of the fact that I did not deliver the book to my friend on a timely basis, but I don’t regret it. I am ashamed of the fact that I was not my ‘best self’; but ‘regret’ implies that I would change what happened in the past, thereby potentially altering what is happening now, in the present. I am unwilling to roll those dice.

The world has moved on. Wonderful things have happened – in my life and in his – and I wouldn’t do anything to change that. So no regrets! Every event triggers a cascade of mostly unpredictable subsequent events. To change any one thing is, potentially at least, to change everything, and I’m not prepared to do that, are you? 

Things are as they are. That’s not to say that they might not have been better. That question is ‘above my pay grade’ (Barack Obama). Suffice to say, I am not willing to sequester the last 30 years in a ‘blind trust’ while I go back and change something I did (or didn’t do) three decades ago. The risk far outweighs any possible reward.

Events are funny things. Obviously, they are linked, but no one event causes any other event. Every event changes the world. Great; that’s just what we wanted, isn’t it? In fact, the event is the change; it constitutes the change, and that event in turn becomes part of the changed actual world of every subsequent event. 

‘A’ changes the world, but that change is not an effect of A; it is A. A becomes a novel element in the actual world of all ‘subsequent’ events; an event B is subsequent to an event A, if and only if A is part of B’s inherited actual world. This is one way to measure universal time: ‘before A’ vs. ‘after A’. In no event, however, can any A ever be said to cause any B. A causes itself, period. Ditto B, except that B causes itself in the context of a world that includes A. 

A changes the actual world; in fact, A is a change in the actual world. B causes itself, but it does so in the context of its actual world, which includes A. You can easily see how folks might confuse ‘A then B’ with ‘A therefore B’, and you can just as easily see that such is not the case. 

So, I’m not ashamed of myself. I am very ashamed of some of the things I’ve done (worse even than ‘book hording’) but ‘merely’ doing shameful things does not make me a shameful person. Sorry Mom, Dad and Sister Mary Martha! I am more than the sum of my actions, certainly more than any one act. Most of us (not you, of course, dear reader) do shameful things from time to time, but none of us, I hope, is a shameful person

To the Western mind, the world is a giant chess set. Before we move a single piece, it behooves us to think several moves ahead. What are the projected consequences of my intended move? But life is not chess! Our ‘moves’ do have consequences, but there is no way for us to control or even anticipate those consequences. What we call planning is just daydreaming.

We can only do our best. Act rightly and accept the consequences. Feel shame when it is appropriate, but never regret what you’ve done, and certainly never regret who you are.



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