Oh, the shame! | Exploring our uniquely human emotion


Who knew? Shame is a hot topic! The MOON received more submissions for this issue than any in our four-year history. Although most of the submissions describe personal incidents of shame or embarrassment, my own motivation in exploring this topic was actually more universal.

As a society, we in the U.S. seem loathe to acknowledge any guilt, regret, or wrongdoing, even though our history is replete with shameful incidents—the legacy of which linger to this day. Rather than provide a laundry list, let’s just name three glaring examples: we slaughtered and displaced the Native population; we built our country on an enslaved workforce whose full humanity we continue to deny; and we’re the only nation to have deployed nuclear weapons—on an enemy that many generals believed was on the verge of surrender anyway.

A reasonable person might consider we’d be willing to apologize for these acts. But that assumes a population that is, in fact, sorry.

Far from being sorry, many Americans get angry when the mere possibility of wrongdoing is suggested.


Shame, apparently. Covered up by rage.

When perpetrators of shameful behavior are challenged, they attack, says Dr. Michael Lewis, our interview subject for this issue. “It’s their defense against the pain of shame.” That’s why Dr. Lewis likens shame to a radioactive particle—we identify it by its trace.

What accounts for so much shame-driven behavior? Psychologist Beverly Engel describes a major source in an essay on hypercritical and shaming parents. Other contributors offer a bounty of memoirspoetry, and short stories on their own or imagined shameful experiences.

One of the great tragedies of shame is that we often trigger it by accident. We say or do something for our own reasons and unwittingly elicit a shame response in another. And because shame is so painful, few of us will admit it. Yet, shame is an emotion that all human beings experience, even if we don’t realize it’s operating within us, both individually and collectively. How can we bring shame to light so that it drives fewer decisions and judgments? How can we be accountable for our behavior and also compassionate, applying appropriate levels of discipline or rehabilitation? How can we as a nation face our shameful behavior, say we’re sorry, and make amends…so that we can move forward, shame-free?

Movies have done an excellent job of helping us understand our history from another’s perspective. Don’t miss this month’s Movies You Might’ve Missed. Or MOON Shine.

Also in this issue you’ll find a page of MOON Goods: T-shirts that show your love of The MOON.

Even more important, The MOON has a new page on Patreon—a platform that enables everyone to become a patron of the arts! You can support The MOON for as little as $5/month…the price of a double-latte (in your own reusable mug, of course). Please do. The MOON depends entirely on reader donations for support—and we want to raise the funds to add a print edition of The MOON.

You can also go here to make a secure online donation. Thank you so much for your support!

Cover photo by Joshua Earle/Unsplash.com. 

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