After receiving two traffic tickets in as many months (one was clearly my fault, but the other was the result of a change in speed limit on a road I have traveled my whole life!!), I was reminded of the difference between guilt and shame. Though we often associate these two ideas, recognizing the difference between them is of vast importance for the pursuit of virtue. (I owe much to my advisor, Dr. John Covaleskie, at the University of Oklahoma for introducing me to the difference between these two ideas).
Guilt is the typical feeling most of us feel when we see the flashing lights in our rear view mirror. Guilt is that inner “daggone it” we get when we know we’ve been caught. It is that feeling of “not again!” when we are busted. Guilt stings and shocks and bites, but it does not change. I feel bad that I got the speeding tickets (and I feel even worse that I have to pay them), but there will probably be another situation where I find myself going just a tad over the limit. In other words, though I feel bad that I got caught, my reaction at best might be, “Man, I hope I don’t do that again.”
Shame, on the other hand, cuts much deeper. Though I have felt guilt numerous times in my life, I have only felt shame a small handful. Though I cannot come up with all of the times in which I have felt guilty over some action, I can recall in the marrow of my soul the times I have felt shame. Shame is that feeling both of wretchedness and “retchedness”; that is, with shame, I feel both wretched for what I have done, and it turns my stomach so deeply that I literally want to retch. Whereas guilt responds with, “I do not want to do (or get caught doing) that again,” shame says, “I do not ever want to be the type of person that would do that again.” Guilt is about what I do; shame is about who I am.
And that is why shame is so redemptive. Guilt rarely changes the behavior of a person, but shame, properly redeemed, can. If my actions so gut me to the core of who I am, then I can repent and turn from being that type of person. In other words, if I feel guilty about being caught in a lie, I might just find ways to not get caught telling lies again, but if I feel shame about being a liar, I will move heaven and earth to become an honest man.
Socrates understood this, and made it a point to say that any wrongdoer who knowingly got away clean from his misdeed should seek punishment immediately lest he lose that part of him that is human and become enslaved to his bestial urges. So too did the prophets know that only through the refiner’s fire could one be made new.
That is why there is great hope in shame. Shame forces me to look into the deep crevices, to throw open the chamber doors, to unearth the musty tomb of my self in order to face my Shadow. Shame holds me accountable for the story I am writing with my life, for the person I am in the process of becoming. Shame is the splinter in my conscience that forces me back to the anvil. Shame, to paraphrase from George MacDonald, is that which salts me with fire, never yielding until the work of virtue is done.
Therefore, I thank God for the shame I have faced in my life, for it and it alone has brought me before the refiner’s fire to be made new. Shame has been my limp and my salvation. Shame has been my redemption and my hope.
May you, too, feel the hope of shame as it makes and unmakes you into something beautiful.