Reclaiming Shame

Around second or third grade, I wore one of my mother’s tweed blazers to school: leather buttons, suede patches on the elbows. It was a perfect Annie Hall blazer, though I didn’t realize it at the time. All I knew is that when I arrived after school at my friend Marcy’s house, her mother said, “That’s a spiffy jacket you’ve got on.” She said the word “spiffy” in that I’m a Midwesterner speaking to children accent—a tiny bit of a lisp, a very short emphasis on the “-y.”

Marcy’s mom was a department store clerk by day and a sad clown by night, entertaining at birthday parties, hospitals and nursing homes. I was terrified of her. And her father too, an army guy who wore cammos, had a gun, and stacks of Playboys by his bed, in the garage, and in the closet. He apparently couldn’t bear to throw out a picture of a naked lady. He too, was terrifying.

But both of them, in fact everything about Marcy’s family and her home has left an indelible mark on my psyche. It was with Marcy that I clandestinely flipped through those stacks of Playboys and felt my first inklings of a latent sexuality, and all the customary shame that goes with it. And because of  the odd interweaving of memory, I still have an abhorrence of pornography, a fear of sad clowns, and an aversion to blazers.

My own parents’ approach to childhood sexuality was liberal: Mom, putting me to bed, gently and calmly asking me about the incident Marcy’s mom reported to her. Yet even her gentle question felt like an accusation and condemnation at once. I had been caught in my most private of discoveries, witnessed by an adult, discussed with my mother, and now addressed personally and asked to elaborate on my crime. My young sexuality had caused adult controversy, and I felt the indictment painfully, no matter how gently my mother posed the question.

There were no particularly Christian reasons to feel shame at that time in my upbringing. We slept in on most Sunday mornings of my early childhood, and no one had inferred to me in any way that sex was bad. But looking through the magazines was something Marcy and I definitely did under cover of darkness, regardless of how boldly they had been left in our path. We both knew that there was something inherently wrong with two little girls looking at grown-up naked women.

Shame is a condition most people experience at some point in life. Wikipedia notes:


“The roots of the word shame are thought to derive from an older word meaning “to cover”; as such, covering oneself, literally or figuratively, is a natural expression of shame.[1] Nineteenth century scientist Charles Darwin, in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, described shame affect as consisting of blushing, confusion of mind, downward cast eyes, slack posture, and lowered head, and he noted observations of shame affect in human populations worldwide.[2] He also noted the sense of warmth or heat (associated with the vasodilation of the face and skin) occurring in intense shame.”


Shame is, apparently, a universal feeling that affects all age groups and cultures. And yet, currently, it has a very bad reputation. Two notions in particular about shame have gained a foothold in popular dialogue:


1. Shame is thrust upon individuals without their permission

2. Shame often originates from the conservative teachings of oppressive religious groups.


Since shame causes such internal discomfort, there has been some effort to disarm its power. You may have heard talk in progressive Christian circles about finding a new vocabulary to talk about sex, for instance, or perhaps reevaluating particular teachings known to be related to feelings of shame.

But we don’t get around shame by redefining sin or blaming teachings that, ironically, aim to protect us from feelings of shame.

In a recent homily, Pope Francis made some very counter-cultural claims about shame and its function in Christian life:


“But Jesus in the confessional is not a dry cleaner: it is an encounter with Jesus, but with this Jesus who waits for us, who waits for us just as we are. “But, Lord, look … this is how I am”, we are often ashamed to tell the truth: ‘I did this, I thought this’. But shame is a true Christian virtue, and even human … the ability to be ashamed: I do not know if there is a similar saying in Italian, but in our country to those who are never ashamed are called “sin vergüenza’: this means ‘the unashamed ‘, because they are people who do not have the ability to be ashamed and to be ashamed is a virtue of the humble, of the man and the woman who are humble. “

Pope Francis continued: “ we must have trust, because when we sin we have an advocate with the Father, “Jesus Christ the righteous.” And He “supports us before the Father” and defends us in front of our weaknesses. But you need to stand in front of the Lord “with our truth of sinners”, “with confidence, even with joy, without masquerading… We must never masquerade before God.” And shame is a virtue: “blessed shame.” “This is the virtue that Jesus asks of us: humility and meekness”.

Text from page of the Vatican Radio website


The Holy Father is saying that the feeling of shame is important to us in our Christian life because it provides us an opportunity to be humbly ourselves in the presence of Christ. If we never fall, if we never feel disappointed, guilty, ashamed of ourselves, how can we ever recognize our own littleness in reference to the Divine Healer? How can we prostrate ourselves, if we are never wrong? If instead of admitting sin, we pretend we know better than all the teachers who have gone before us?

We don’t get around that horrible feeling of shame by pretending there is no sin, but rather, through the goodness, mercy, and forgiveness of God.

In a discussion of the book Kristin Lavransdatter at the Reading for Believers Blog, Melanie Bettinelli made several relevant points:


If the Lord does not watch over the city in vain does the watchman keep vigil.

It seems to me the problem we’re discussing is a matter of watchmen keeping vigil in vain because God’s been left out of it. Shame and guilt eating people up because they weren’t strong enough to stand guard and thus the city fell under their watch. But you know they failed because they never asked God for help in the first place. …Guilt and shame are only useful in the context of a faithful relationship with God. If God isn’t watching over the city, then they are vain watchmen that protect no one.”


“Guilt and shame are only useful in as much as they impel us to throw ourselves upon God’s mercy. As endpoints they are dead ends. So it seems that in the conversation about people who leave the Church because of its teaching about sexual sin those who want to say it’s no sin to have sex outside of marriage always overlook the Church’s teaching on confession, on the power of the cross to heal all wounds.

In him and through his blood we have been redeemed and our sins are forgiven so immeasurably generous is God’s favor to us.

Sin doesn’t have to haunt you all your life, to devour you from inside. The solution is not to jettison a sense of sin… but to inculcate a greater trust in God’s mercy to forgive sins and to heal the wounds caused by sin.”


I would also add that a healthy sense of shame on the part of some adults– a feeling that perhaps one’s interest in Playboy magazine should be kept under cover of darkness– might have prevented two little girls from feeling the inherent shame that comes when innocence brushes up against an adult world that it cannot adequately process. Marcy and I had shame thrust upon us, indeed, by an adult who attempted to disarm the power of shame over his own sexual proclivities.



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About Elizabeth Duffy