I will be out in the field for most of the day. That's cool. The following is another “summer rerun.” It’s a edited (shortened) story about shame and violence. I’ve submitted it to an anthology on bullying. Let me know if you have any constructive insights...
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-=[ Shame ]=-
We live in an atmosphere of shame. We are ashamed of everything that is real about us; ashamed of ourselves, of our relatives, of our incomes, of our accents, of our opinion, of our experience, just as we are ashamed of our naked skins.
-- George Bernard Shaw
The whole fifth grade class was laughing at him. Including me.
His father stumbled into the middle of a spelling test and began arguing with our teacher. His clothes were ragged and he was unkempt. He was there to make a case for his son, Kevin, who sat next to me. Kevin and I were the smartest kids in the class, but Kevin was painfully shy and no one really liked him to begin with, so now everybody, including me, was laughing at him because his father was a junkie and he showed up in the middle of a spelling test totally out of his mind. He was nodding out even as he argued his son’s case.
I don’t remember all the details, but I remember the shame. I remember the shame on Kevin’s face, the humiliation in the knowledge that now everyone knew his deadly secret – that his father was a junkie. I remember my own shame too, because I felt hypocritical.
It’s so easy to join the mob, so easy to feel a part of the crowd at the expense of someone else. The mob mentality has no mercy.
The fact was that I too knew that shame. My own father was a heroin addict, and I remember when all my friends one day encircled me and chanted, “Your father’s a junkie, your father’s a junkie,” and I remember the deep feeling of shame, of humiliation, and of anger. I was much too young and I had no way to resolve the anger and shame I felt about my father because I adored him so and all those feelings -- I just didn’t know how to process all those feelings. I just stood there in the middle of that circle and cried tears of anger until I lashed out at the first one fool enough to get close to me and I punched him in the nose. And that’s when the mob turned on me and I went home with a split lip and torn clothes.
I hated him – my father – for making me go through that, but I adored my father so much. He was so smart. I used to love to sit on his lap and put my ear to his chest and listen to the soft rumble of his voice as he taught me something or had a conversation with someone else. My father was like a God to me. And now I hated him and I loathed myself for that.
I was too young and didn’t have the psychological resources. So I guess somewhere, somehow, I internalized all those feelings and became ashamed of myself for everything: for my father and for my feelings.
My father was one of the greatest storytellers and on some days, he would gather all the kids on the block and tell us stories. I guess it was a testament to his storytelling gift that he could keep us transfixed on that
But they never did.
My father would nod when he told my friends stories. At first, we would sit there for what would seem minutes because invariably there was a punch line, a moral, or a resolution to the story. At first, my friends wouldn’t say anything, but eventually my father’s nodding got worse and one day while arguing over a game or a rule, as boys are won’t to do, it came out: the unspoken truth that my father was a junkie. It was a hard lesson learned at such a tender age.
Yet I sat there and laughed at Kevin just like everyone else did and even as a fifth-grader I knew it was wrong. I knew that I was being a phony because I didn’t want to feel that shame anymore, I wanted to be like the others, so I joined in on the cruelty. After, I tried to reach out to Kevin, but he refused, sensing something worse: that I pitied him. Eventually, I told Kevin my secret and while we never became close friends, in the fifth grade we stuck it out together. I did so even though talking to Kevin made me an outsider, but that was OK, because I think it was at that time I decided I would always be an outsider. I reasoned that no one could really know me if I was an outsider, so fuck them.
And in that way, I began to build a wall of protection that kept others out so no one could ever know me -- a fortress surrounding my heart. I made sure no one could ever know me...
Shame is a prison. I don’t know for sure if this was the beginning, or the setting of the table for my own life, but I certainly know that our secrets kill us, as surely as cigarettes or drugs. Secrets kill because embedded in our secrets is our shame. Eventually, my shame would guide me on my own journey to destruction, addiction, prisons, and intuitions, and it almost killed me. Shame fed my inner rage. A rage I learned to keep secret deep inside of me. A rage turned inwards that almost destroyed my life.
Even now, sometimes it’s easy for me to join in with the mob and feast on another’s soul so that I could feel better about myself. It’s the easiest thing – because it trips that “You belong” button. I’ve done it before and felt stupid after when the object of ridicule was kind to me.
But really: how many of us are laughing or forming cliques because we too have secrets? How many of us can say we’re not ashamed at some level?