Is there a Place for Shame?

I had a disturbing conversation today. He was from Texas, a state my family resided in during my first Air Force tour. What troubled me was a recent experience he had that revealed even “down south,” where courtesies long forgotten by most on the west coast still prevail, rudeness is on the rise.

The man I was talking to is a crippled veteran, a Marine in fact. We were discussing the number of people who don’t think twice about “stealing” clearly marked disabled parking spaces from those who genuinely need them.

He related that as he returned to his car recently, there was a young man just getting out of his own vehicle in the adjacent, reserved space. There was no indication on the vehicle that it was authorized to use the space, and neither the man nor his passenger evidenced any disability.

The veteran said, “maybe you didn’t realize it, but that’s a handicapped space you just parked in.”

His words elicited an emotional backlash as the driver (in his twenties) unleashed a barrage of vulgarity and curses at this stranger who had dared to point out his discourteous act.

After his rant, the trash-talker’s father interjected, “hey, it’s none of your business where my son parks, anyway, what do you expect us to do?”

The Marine stood his ground and said, “someone who needs that spot won’t be able to use it if you’re there. If you don’t want to move it now, perhaps the police can persuade you to do it when they arrive.”

As he pulled his phone out of his pocket, the grumbling older man persuaded his fuming son to move the car before the call could go through.

As disgusting as this scene was, I’m sure it’s reenacted across the globe in hundreds of locales every day.

I shared with my new friend the first thought that entered my mind when I heard the question: “what do you expect us to do?”

I told him I would have been tempted to shout: “What I expect is for you, as a father, to feel some modicum of shame for the disgusting way your son is acting.”

What used to be universally regarded as inappropriate conduct now appears to have become the norm. This decline has been in progress for some time. C.S. Lewis referred to the slide in public mores in a 1945 essay.

“We have lost the invaluable faculty of being shocked—a faculty which has hitherto almost distinguished the Man or Woman from the beast or child.” (“After Priggery—What?”)

If I had been there to voice the words that leapt to my mind—and if the foul-mouthed individual didn’t beat me into deaf unconsciousness—I would be curious to see if my statement elicited the slightest glimmer of shame in either father or the son.

There is an irony interwoven into this tale, as is true in so much of life. Although I don’t hijack disabled parking spaces . . . there is much in my life for which I should be—and am—ashamed. As I consider my own selfishness and sin, I am reminded that I am no more deserving of God’s grace than either of the men I am so quick to condemn.

Here too C.S. Lewis offers wise insight. In The Problem of Pain he describes how it is only in sincere, naked self-examination and confession that we can see ourselves as we truly are. “Unless Christianity is wholly false, the perception of ourselves which we have in moments of shame must be the only true one.”

Shame is part of the life of the Christian. And, I would suggest, in the life of every healthy person. I’m not talking about debilitating shame that leads to despair or self-loathing. I’m referring to that shame that is itself a divine gift. The shame that reminds me I should strive to be a better person today than the man I was yesterday.

A shame that drives me to my knees in prayer and moves me to echo the prayers of millions of believers before me and this very day alongside me . . . “forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.”

11 thoughts on “Is there a Place for Shame?

  1. Very insightful. I get so black and white. In trying to recover from a debilitating shame stemming in my childhood, I try to push all shame out of my life. But there is a shame you speak of here, that is indeed a divine gift. Thank you!

  2. I second the spirit of this post. I have had the unfortunate experience of living next door to college football players from a state college. Here are some examples of what passes for gentlemanly behavior here in Idaho:

    1. Blasting bass music in a parking lot shared by 5 other families, some with small children or the handicapped.

    2. Parking so many vehicles around our vehicles that we could not get out, nor could any emergency vehicle get in.

    3. Keeping a 70 lbs dog without registering it with the landlords, when there is a 25 lbs limit. After being told to remove the dog, they tried to keep the dog here secretly, and completely disregarded both neighbors and the property owners in the process.

    4. Plugging in an extremely loud subwoofer so that we can clearly hear the entire bass line in our place. Unplugging it when confronted, and then plugging it in again a couple of months later and not understanding why it is a problem.

    5. All the music in each case is very profane and vulgar.

    6. Slamming doors at 2 in the morning when arriving home at night, talking and yelling in the parking lot etc…

    This is my short list, and I could include more. When confronted by me, my wife, other neighbors, and the property managers, the response has been blatant disregard, swearing (thinking I couldn’t here) and the like. I even had one individual when confronted at 1 in the morning saying “Close your door and lock it” with expletives while drunk, which of course could be construed as a threat.

    I once read that a true gentleman does not allow others to be boorish and won’t stand for dishonor. In that regard, while I still pray for them and their salvation, I protect my family’s well-being, and will confront them each and every time they violate good standards of conduct and the easy to understand terms of their lease agreement.

  3. Whenever someone parked in a reserved space that was clearly not handicapped in any way, my father would remark, “That person must be morally handicapped.” It was a lesson and an indictment that has stayed with me. I have plenty of my own actions to be ashamed of, and I love that you end your post with the message of forgiveness (whether it’s forgiving the shameful acts of others or our own shameful acts that can lead to self-loathing).

  4. Well said. I have a post on shame in draft, but put it aside – couldn’t decide whether to finish it – Shame seem to be so absent in today’s world – and while it may be debilitating as you mentioned, without it, the world is less congenial/thoughtful – more harsh with more conflict.
    This story reminds me of my wobbly father at age 93 when we suggested he could use the handicap spaces- his Dr offered a tag. He refused saying those are for those who truly need them – he could still manage. It’s that generation and how they were raised and lived.
    We may be seeing the results of the “everyone’s a winner” education system.
    Great job – better than I could aspire to do

  5. Your dad is my hero!

    And no, you could certainly pen something on the subject at least as good as this blog. They’d just be “different,” and that would allow more people to hear the message.

  6. John Burkitt

    I am irked by those who–perhaps intentionally–confuse the difference between freedom of speech and freedom of modality. Saying “Vote Smith, Reject Jones” is freedom of speech. Spray painting it in red across the Mona Lisa is vandalism. Screaming it at terrified children backed into a corner is assault. Phrasing it as a loud, profanity-laced tirade is disturbing the peace. Am I the only one that feels that way?

    1. You’re certainly right. “Freedom of speech” has been used to protect oral assaults, pornography and many other things our nation’s founders never intended. We can disagree and do so with mutual respect and courtesy.

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