Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Shame on you, you should be ashamed of yourself! I am ashamed of you! These are familiar phrases most of us have heard sometime in our childhood. Shame is an emotion not often discussed; but, of course, we all know that the Bible tells us that in the beginning there was no shame. According to Genesis, Adam and Eve were both naked and were not ashamed; but after eating the forbidden fruit, they knew of their nakedness and tried to hide it. Shame thus came into existence.

Since then its been used in many cultures as a way of teaching children and sometimes adults acceptable behavior. Not unlike Adam and Eve, children are made to feel self conscious about exposing their bodies or losing control of bodily functions. Feelings of shame and humiliation take root.

There are even shame cultures like Japan after WW11, when their defeat left them with feelings of shame and humiliation. The Muslim culture can be described as a shame culture as well.

As we all know adults in our culture, at least in recent years, are not made to feel ashamed for exposing large areas of their bodies. The culture does however attribute feelings of shame to the aging body. What a shame--she used to be so pretty. He hasn’t got the strength to hit that ball the way he used to. As a society we are very self conscious about our bodies and much of our self esteem stems from a young, healthy, attractive physique, full of vim and vigor. It’s a blow to our self-esteem, what the psychologists call a narcissistic injury when our bodies start to show signs of aging, even as little as a few wrinkles or some gray hairs. Even when we fall ill, some of these feelings emerge. Animals hide when they get sick.

As I’ve grown older, being self-conscious about my physical self is certainly present, but is it shame I feel? I acknowledge that I “feel ashamed of myself” if I put on weight . Obesity is definitely a state that our culture makes us feel ashamed about.

What I have been aware of is that the need to occasionally ask for help, or be offered a seat on the bus, stirs up a feeling of self-consciousness, being yes, slightly ashamed of being perceived as needy.

But there is also the pride of the older person who is active and “doesn’t look her age.” It prompts me to tell my age, so that I can enjoy the response. “I can’t believe it!” You don’t look your age,” the older person’s highest compliment.

Perhaps some day as more people live longer and remain healthy and vigorous, being older will not be accompanied by feelings of self-consciousness, neediness, or shame.


boblf said...

Isn't it interesting that the opposite of shame namely pride can also be viewed as a sin by some religions. What is a person to feel. I recently broke a bone in my hand and had someone give me a seat on a crowded bus. At first I protested I wasn't "that old" yet and then they pointed at my hand. I tried to recover my dignity and thank them for their kindness. I had forgotten my hand but not my age.
Bob Friend

Austin Tyler said...

And yet in many societies growing old may also associated with pride, the opposite of shame. For example in East Asia, where I feel people have more respect for elders than they do in Western society and one's status correlates more strongly with age. Growing old, less mobile and more pensive can also give one a sage-like quality. It's a fascinating idea as to why certain societies perceive elders in different ways. I would be curious for you to expand on the idea of shame in Muslim society as I don't know much about that.
p.s. I must say, I really like the originality of your post titles.