“Shame” on You

Recently, I came across a newspaper’s Letter to the Editor written by a well-known television personality.  She’d gotten pregnant out-of-wedlock at 17, and had to endure  “…[my] mother’s disappointment, my father’s anger, the priest’s admonishment…[T]he shame and ridicule were more than I could bear.  I was no good.  I had messed up.  I knew it.  My dreams and life were shattered.  Days later, I was married off and sent away.  I said I did not love this man.  I was told: ‘You made your bed; now you must lie in it.’”

She went on to recount the damage to her self-esteem (which she called “life-threatening”) and described being ostracized and condemned as a “bad” girl, “when I had tried hard all my life to do well and make my parents proud.”

While it’s natural to feel compassion for someone who has faced that kind of negative reaction from all the significant adults in her life, it’s important to point out that this situation was not all about her.  And it seems like this author still doesn’t get it.  It is about the innocent, dependent child who finds himself or herself in an unprepared, chaotic, non-committed, immature and fragile situation by being born to a teenager and her male counterpart who are having a sexual relationship and are not prepared for the biological consequences:  a pregnancy.

The concept of “feeling shame” is a very human, emotional/social mechanism.  Its purpose is to deter people from engaging in behaviors that will have negative consequences for them, for others who may be victimized by their behavior, and for the community and society as a whole.   The motivation behind those who rage against “shame” is to dissociate behavior from consequence.  These days, judgment of others is considered a bad thing because it hurts feelings, but having hurt feelings (particularly if they’re the result of actions which cause pain to others) is a good thing; it is part of having a conscience.  Only good people feel guilt.  Only good people suffer from doing ill to others.  It’s human, natural, expected and respected for people to suffer over their wrongdoing.  To complain, however, that wrongdoing should not result in any negative reaction is immature and defensive and contrary to the notion of taking responsibility for how one’s actions impact others.

The author of the letter complains about having to marry the young man – whom she didn’t love – in order to legitimize the baby and take responsibility as a family for the child’s welfare.  Why is that a bad thing?  Why was she having sexual relations with someone for whom she didn’t have the highest regard and wouldn’t have chosen to be the father of her future children?   Is it not in the best interest of the child to have the foundation of a family?

Submitting to responsibility for a dependent child seems like a noble action to me.  Staying mutually committed for the well-being of another human being sounds noble to me.  And many can report that people so inclined grow together and build a strong love and family foundation. These ideals, however, don’t often resonate with people who marry this young.  That is why adoption is often the best solution for the child.

The author of this letter was making the point that the media shouldn’t focus on those young men and women who make this sort of “mistake,” because it hurts their feelings and because these are private issues.  Generally, these are private issues, but when people in the public eye and their families display behaviors which undermine role-modeling obligations or expectations, it should be examined publicly, because impressionable youngsters take their cues from their environment.  When there is no public “shame” for destructive, hurtful or illegal behaviors our children see and emulate, the disasters grow exponentially.

The author writes : “If my pregnancy – my deepest shame – had been broadcast for all to know about, I might have taken my life.”  Clearly, now that the author is a mature woman, she is making her own “shameful” history public and is not suicidal.  Maturity is an important factor in dealing with serious issues, which is precisely why children should not be engaging in activities that endanger the lives of innocent people (as we’ve seen with fetuses being aborted or newborns tossed in dumpsters or toilets).  The young women themselves are at risk when they have a child’s view of how “life is over” just because they’re embarrassed. 

So, instead of railing about how upsetting shame is to a pregnant youngster, it is important to point out to all the other young people out there what dangerous ground they tread when they “walk” as responsible adults, but in reality have the footprints of naïve children.  Taking this story public is a way to warn children away from playing with the “perks” of committed adults when they are in no position to take on the responsibilities of their actions, nor to cope well with the emotional fallout.

We are in an era which judges “judgment” as evil.  It isn’t.  Morals, values, principles and ethics are prophylactics against pain and destruction, and not just somebody’s evil attempt to wrest momentary pleasure from the grip of innocent bystanders.