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Guilt and Shame


“Let us not be ashamed to speak what we shame not to think.”

- Michel de Montaigne


We frequently use the words guilt and shame interchangeably, when we ought not. They are vastly different.


Guilt is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined. Guilt is the result of and is focused on one’s actions or failure to act. Thus it is about behavior. Guilt and Shame are often confused.


Guilt is something we feel about something we’ve done, or failed to do. We sometimes feel this even when we’ve done no wrong or are mistaken about the consequences or significance of our actions. But guilt can be forgiven. Others can forgive us. We can forgive ourselves. God, in most every tradition, forgives us. Why shouldn’t he/she, if we are flawed, if we fail to achieve perfection, we are as we were created. Guilt can be atoned for, amends can be made, we can compensate, offer reparations. We can offer other acts to make up for our flawed acts. Guilt is about doing or not doing. Its remedies can be found in doing or not doing.


Not so with shame. Shame is something we feel about who we are. Shame is about being, rather than doing. It is existential. Shame is an emotion in which the self is perceived as defective, unacceptable, or fundamentally damaged. Shame is the inability to ever do or be good or worthy enough. Thus it results in perpetual, fruitless striving. Shame kills our ability to connect to others. It withers us. Causes us to withdraw. To retreat. To hide. It changes the way we walk, the way we speak, the things we are willing to express, to share. It changes our posture. It changes what we see in the mirror, even when there is no change in what others see when they look at us. It causes us to be inordinately self conscious and self absorbed. It causes us to judge ourselves mercilessly and by impossible standards of perfection.


“I'm afraid that sometimes you'll play lonely games too. Games you can't win 'cause you'll play against you.”

― Dr. Seuss


The story of Adam and Eve in the garden, is a story of shame. They ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they were ashamed. Not because they were disobedient. That would have been guilt. No, they were ashamed because for the first time, they viewed themselves as flawed. This is why God warned them not to eat of the tree. It was less of a command, than a warning. In the state of innocence, they were happy, blissful. They were content to be as they were created. Their bodies were. Neither good, nor bad, they simply were. They walked simply, humbly and happily with the God that created them. Afterward, with the forbidden knowledge, they felt unworthy, ashamed. This unworthiness separated them from God, from the garden, from the state of bliss and happiness. Yet, it was only this knowledge that had changed. Their bodies were the same, their hearts were the same. Only the shame was new. They had lost their innocence.

Innocence is not merely having done no wrong, rather, innocence is the inability to do any wrong. It is the ultimate state of infinite worthiness. Innocence enables connection and healing. Innocence is the opposite of shame. We reconnect with our innocence when we are able and willing to become vulnerable. When we experience shame, we are afraid to let others see us, to know us, to be revealed.


It is a telling thing that “original sin,” the story of the origin of shame, features so prominently in the Judeo/Christian/Islamic scripture. This knowledge, this loss of innocence, this shame, is the basis for an aspect of our worldview that is so fundamental that we simply take it for granted. It is the basis for the notion that our worth is determined by what we do, what we accomplish and how those accomplishments are valued by others.


It is the basis of the notion that to exist, we must, daily, earn the right. Yet, everything in the universe exists without having to earn that right. Everything, but human beings. The right to exist arises alongside existence itself. It does not have to be earned. The earth, the sky, the air, the oceans, all the creatures, all the plants, everything that is, has a right to be here.


So do you.


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