At first rosy blush, shame most certainly seems to be red. The Scarlet Letter, the embarrassment of being caught in a lie, or the menstrual red spread on a white skirt.
Shame can also be green. The irrational, over-reacting, sickish shade of green that makes you say, “I didn’t know she was going to be at the party,” and then later pretend you weren’t jealous.
Red and green shames are personal, coming from inner taunts like,
You’re just not good enough
What’s wrong with you?
If people really knew you, they wouldn’t like you
With personal shame, it’s important to examine the source. We need to make sure it’s our own conscience wriggling, and not someone else wagging their finger in our business.
Then there’s community shame. That might be a combination of colors. Say the red, white, and blue shame that’s born of a million dead “redskin” Native Americans, or more than four million black and brown humans “owned” by white humans, or more than 120,000 “yellow” Japanese-Americans imprisoned during World War II. Communities may try to cover shame with semantics and rationalization, but everyone can see the red blood of children through the phrase, “collateral damage.”
When we get into “group think,” our multi-colored shame explodes.
Many of us experience this multi-colored community shame when the words of our sacred texts are used to judge and exclude, oppress or cause violence. My Muslim friends expressed this after September 11th, and as a Christian occasionally subjected to TV evangelists, I am quite familiar with the feeling.
Still, even as we decry warped interpretations of our beloved Torah, Koran, Bible, and Vedas, if we’re honest, we know that our own wounded and prideful hearts are quite capable of dropping some not-so-smart bombs.
Yes, there’s enough shame for every color of the rainbow.
Shame is not made up of pretty rainbow colors.
I asked my Facebook friends about shame colors: Lots of support for red, some football jokes, and a few votes for black “because you can hide in it,” and, “it’s the middle of the night and I can’t stop replaying the conversation in my head.” Another wrote, “a grey fog that swirls around you.”
My friend Bill said, “Shame is the color of oak leaves in January – crumpled and dead.”
I think that’s it. Shame is brown. Muddy brown.
It gets all muddled up with fear – fear of being disliked or abandoned for your behavior. Sometimes there is anger mixed in – anger at another person for seeing your less-than-perfect self, or anger at yourself for not being perfect, or for even caring what someone else thinks.
If you don’t deal with shame, it turns to toxic guilt, which is more diffuse, like a smoggy day. Guilt can pollute your whole life, “making it hard to move around and enjoy life,” said another friend.
There is a way out of the mud and smog and fog.
Apologies are Hard
It’s hard to apologize, even for our most egregious behavior. Shame is all tangled up with needing to be right, needing to seem perfect, needing to be esteemed. It’s simple pride. Some suffer – literally – under the illusion that apologizing makes one look weak, when the opposite is true – apologizing shows strength of character.
During this American political season, one of the red herrings being tossed around is whether or not America should ever apologize. In fact, Mitt Romney even wrote a book called No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.
Excuse me, but how silly.
Every school kid knows that a sincere apology is the best way to dig out of your muddy brown shame. Red, white, and blue shame is no different. An apology, coupled with a change in the behavior, is the most effective way to move forward in a relationship.
I have to hand it to VP candidate Paul Ryan. Even though Mr. Romney may not agree, at least when Ryan was asked if the U.S. should apologize for its soldiers burning Korans and urinating on corpses, his big blue eyes got even bigger, and he said, “Oh gosh, yes.” School-kid wisdom.
The worldwide Twelve Step recovery programs are well-recognized for putting millions of lives back together. If you do a little research, you’ll find that one of the primary ways these communities help people to emotional freedom is through humility and the release of shame:
Step eight says: Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
In step nine, you do just that.
Step ten: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
Those in the programs will tell you: these steps are not so much for the aggrieved as for the transgressor.
Shame only lives in the gooey, brown anaerobic slime of silence. Let in a little fresh air and bright yellow sunshine, and maybe you’ll see a rainbow.
This post was written in response to another weekly writing challenge from WordPress: A Splash of Color:
I had fun with this one!