Dot writes: freed of bibliography-compiling, proofing and indexing, and temporarily ignoring the great obstacle course of lecture-writing and course preparation that I have to negotiate in the course of the summer, I am doing some actual proper research. My own work. Not editing. Not for teaching. It’s lovely. I find myself eager to get to the office and sneaking in extra reading after the children are in bed and on the train. It’s a measure of how little chance I’ve had to do this in recent years that the project in question is one on shame that I previously worked on in two short bursts in 2006 and 2007 (i.e. before Hugh was born). I’m hoping to write an article on the use of shame concepts by the homilist Aelfric, who has some interesting quirks in how he uses shame vocabulary (for example, he repeatedly calls heathen gods sceandlic or bysmorful).
The meat of my own contribution needs to be the vocabulary study and literary analysis, but I can’t help but be sucked in to the theoretical literature on shame. At the moment I’m reading with great interest one I only borrowed so I could morally mention it in a footnote: Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology by Stephen Pattison (Cambridge: C.U.P., 2000). Pattison’s main theses are as follows:
1. there isn’t really a single essence that is shame. Pattison subscribes to a ‘family resemblance’ theory: in different cultures, periods and languages, there are sets of related concepts/practices that in modern English come under the umbrella of shame. Shame is a sense of inadequacy or failure in the self; its focus on the self is what distinguishes it from guilt, which is focused on specific acts of wrongdoing. But shame does seem to have changed through history, and modern western culture, with its individualism and the immense pressure it places on the construction and presentation of an interior personal identity, makes people prone to an especially ‘psychologized’ shame, in which the self is split into a harsh observer and an unworthy observed.
2. Though shame is part of how societies regulate behaviour and stop people offending against each other, it can be an immensely damaging emotion that stops people fully entering into social and moral life. This is particularly true of people with ‘chronic shame’, a condition in which they do not simply suffer occasional moments of shame but experience their own identities as fundamentally shamed. Such shame can prevent them from forming healthy social relationships, for example because they avoid others in their immense fear of rejection, or because alternatively they project their shame outwards as resentment, anger and envy towards other people. The shamed individual is preoccupied with the self and also characteristically passive and despairing of their ability to act effectively, all of which inhibit their capacity to be moral agents.
3. Christianity needs to find ways of dealing with shame, both helping people to overcome shame and be reintegrated in their communities and facing up to the respects in which institutional religion has in the past damagingly filled people with shame. (Catholic guilt is, in this analysis, actually Catholic shame. Guilt is healthy because it involves owning up to a specific act and wanting to do something about it; whereas shame means viewing yourself as bad.)
I haven’t done more than dip into the last section, which deals with (3), but it could actually be quite relevant to my article, which deals I suppose with the prehistory of modern shame and the meeting of Christian thought about sin and fallenness with a secular society that emphasised reputation and honour. At present I am digesting (2). Two aspects of it seem especially personally relevant. First, it has a section on how a shamed personality can be created in early childhood. In early childhood a baby (so the theory goes) needs responses from its caregivers that make it feel it is a loveable person whose emotions count. A child who is ignored and made to feel s/he doesn’t matter or a child who feels s/he can’t express his/her real feelings but must produce the face the caregivers require is likely to develop a profound sense of being unloveable, inauthentic, and thus prone to shame. It is extraordinary to think how important these early interactions are – the laughing back at one’s baby, cuddling and comforting, asking “Are you sad?” – and what enormous consequences for the rest of one’s life it can have to have a neglectful, insensitive, or in the worst scenario actively abusive caregiver. It is incredibly sad to think that many children don’t get the early love, attention and affirmation they need; but comforting that I’m sure our children do and that we did ourselves.
The second aspect that struck me was that, despite my happy relationship with my parents, I think I do have a mild case of chronic shame. Nothing too extreme, but I do recognise many of the scenarios Pattison describes (for he identifies himself as a shame-sufferer and uses examples from his own life). The difficulty in greeting or visiting people because of the fear that they might not be pleased to see me, rationalising it as not wanting to bother them. The tendency to avoid tasks when I don’t think I’m doing very well. Pre-emptively running myself down (‘I don’t know anything about this, of course, so I’d like to ask you a dumb question…’). Denying myself chances – not taking that trip, not going to that conference. In my own case I would trace it to being bullied at school, particularly in the two years when I started two different secondary schools in succession, and already being socially awkward and a bit of a misfit I became a target. It’s easy to get self-pitying about this sort of thing, but I do pity my younger self: I had a horrible time, and very little emotional equipment to cope with it, and I felt there was nowhere I could go for help because I had wanted to change schools and, anyway, what could they do?
But I don’t want to exaggerate my psychic wounds. I have a happy family life, I’m making new friends, and if I can just get this article written I’m hoping to present it as a paper at a big international conference. In Madison, Wisconsin, which is somewhere I’ve never been.