The Death of Shame

Whatever happened to shame?  I was listening to oldies radio the other day and Love Child by Diana Ross and the Supremes was playing.  As I reflected again on the lyrics, I became aware that it was written in a different age: 

Don’t think that I don’t need you
Don’t think I don’t wanna please you
No child of mine’ll be bearing
The name of shame I’ve been wearing

Love child, love child, never quite as good
Afraid, ashamed, misunderstood

There was a time in America in which shame still existed, wasn’t there?  When there were things people were ashamed about?  People hid events and histories, behaviors, beliefs, and life circumstances from public view because they brought a name of shame upon the person or their family—a sense of guilt—as though the public understood a generally-agreed-upon-wrong to have occurred.

Shame.  It’s not usually viewed as a good thing. 

But I miss it, perhaps because shame served a purpose. 

It reflected a collective conscience that said we still cared about right and wrong.  Truth and lies existed and weren’t muddled into some collage of my-truth-your-truth in every shade of dark but never black and white.   Right and wrong, good and evil have been lost among the 50 shades of gray and are no longer prominent in the American spotlight, although some of us still cling to the idea.  I remember a day when good and evil still mattered.  Or was it a dream gone by?

Shame has disappeared down the same path as truth and conscience.  What used to be a source of shame is now the substance of celebrity, heading off to rehab with 15 minutes of fame, fodder for the nightly news, the ticket to getting on the front page of tabloids, or getting someone a book deal.  Baby bumps are everywhere, far more prevalent than wedding rings or golden anniversaries.

This is what Diana Ross sang about as part of raising the social consciousness regarding unmarried teenage mothers. One blogger writes about Love Child:

 In 1960, approximately 15 percent of teenage women who gave birth did so out of wedlock. In 1970 that number had doubled, to 30 percent. Teenagers began marrying less, too…A 1985 version of the NCHS study noted the following: “Teen parents . . . tend to have larger numbers of children, to face a higher probability of being a single parent, to experience poverty more frequently, and to be disproportionately represented on welfare.”

These are the facts that underscore the song’s urgency. The song isn’t about the rejection of childbirth–it’s about the avoidance of having kids out of wedlock. It’s about not wanting to raise your children single, to avoid poverty and welfare, about not getting locked into a cycle of having even more kids you can’t take care of as well as possible.

But then came Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach and People Magazine (which is singularly kept in business by parading an endless stream of those who are pregnant out of wedlock, who are going to rehab this week for drug or alcohol abuse, who cheated on whom, who killed whom, and who are getting divorced and battling over custody of their child).

Wasn’t there a time not too long ago when these things above—though they were a sad reality—were not considered socially promising and therefore remained quiet, private matters?  Fearing they’d make for embarrassing gossip not a cause de célèbre, they were hung in the closet, never on a flagpole.

Wasn’t there a time when a person would have experienced–at the very least–the tapping of their conscience upon their heart if they contemplated telling a lie to a good friend or the public at large?  I want to believe there was a time when a speaker taking the public’s podium treated the microphone with a modicum of respect, understanding the heavy responsibility for telling the truth. To tell the truth that a public once expected from its leaders instead of half-truths, self-serving spun statistics, or bald-faced lies.   Now, we don’t know if they will even feel guilty for lying or if it’s just another day at the office.

Shame.  There was a perfect time in which shame did not exist:  before sin entered the world.  Genesis 2:25 tells us, “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.”  There was nothing to be ashamed of, for there was nothing but good in all of creation.  There was a time when we were not ashamed of good, to be called good, or to pursue social good.

Then sin came along.

But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (Genesis 3:9-10)

Shame and hiding used to go hand in hand. 

But now, the list of generally-agreed-upon-wrongs has been stripped down. 

Don’t get me wrong: 
I don’t like the idea of people being ashamed or experiencing public humiliation. 

I like the idea of shame (as a possible outcome) deterring people beforehand from doing shameful things.  I like shame’s giving people incentive to be responsible today for doing good since it will benefit them tomorrow.  Fear of shame (and sucking up my pride, frankly) kept me from doing many things.  When I was in college and others around me were signing up for charity and public assistance, I said, “I can’t.”  You see, shame limited my seeking charity that I didn’t truly need, though there were times that a little charity would have helped.  But I feel better today knowing it likely helped others–ones who needed it far more than I did–by my sacrificing then.  Shame played a positive role.

Without shame we have lost the positive deterring effect, but we have also become nothing short of shameless in other areas.

It’s like a storehouse of truth that’s being looted and we’ve been watching the whole thing unfold on the footage from the security camera.  We see the truth disappearing right in front of our eyes, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

We’re just gawkers of reality TV…and reality isn’t what it used to be, unless the reality is happening to us personally.  Only then do truth and lies, right and wrong seem to matter.  When you’ve been bilked out of your fortune, had a spouse cheat on you, been served divorce papers, found a + on a pregnancy test and an inconclusive minus for whose paternity, purchased a product on empty promises, or had the theft, home invasion, or murder affect you personally.

It’s a crying shame that only when reality hits us squarely in the head, do we see how we’ve been led along the garden path, waving good-bye all the while to both conscience and truth.

As far as I can tell, for a huge swath of the American public, there is no scarlet letter for anything anymore.  And I wonder if that special time I remember…was it just a dream?

Categories Articles, Articles and Devotionals | Tags: | Posted on September 11, 2012

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