We used to have a sense of shame that influenced our behavior. Reflecting upon a vile word or deed might cause shame to rise up in us. When admonished for wearing something revealing or improper, it could trigger a movement of shame. Betraying faith, family or principles were once considered shameful acts to be avoided at all costs. We felt shame when failing to live up to high standards.
This sense of shame is now gone. People still do deceitful things, and, if anything, such acts are vastly more common today. Indeed, base acts no longer awaken in tepid hearts movements of shame and remorse.
The reason for this lamentable behavior is that we no longer hold ourselves up to high standards. In vain do we seek to restore shame if we do not address how these standards develop.
Lacking a Metaphysical Perspective
The sense of shame comes from a metaphysical perspective of the world. It holds that the only way to interpret reality meaningfully is to look beyond the material existence of things. In the classical and Christian traditions, people did this by searching for the ultimate principles and causes of things.
This meant that they tried to understand the nature of things, and from this perception, they derived principles and ways of dealing with the world around them. Thus, they developed those vehicles of the soul found in art, philosophy and religion. They valued the spiritual things over the material; the beautiful over the vulgar; the virtuous over the sinful.
This “metaphysical society” developed a rich body of philosophical ideas, laws and principles. People applied these ideals to the culture and customs of their lands. This vision created high standards of behavior that all were expected to respect. It identified the lower levels of conduct deemed shameful that were unacceptable, immoral and base.
Shame as a Defense
Shame is a product of a society that prioritizes the soul over the body. It is a defense mechanism against all that is low, vulgar and sinful.
In his insightful book, The Cunning of Freedom: Saving the Self in an Age of False Idols, the Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko explains how the sense of shame is “the reaction of human nature’s loftier elements to the incursion of its baser instincts.”
The ordered soul naturally rises up and clamors against our disgraceful appetites. We instinctively perceive that we are giving in to temptations, weaknesses or bad desires. Our sentiments rebel against these incursions. Shame may even have physical manifestations in the form of blushing and awkwardness.
Thus, when we fail to live up to high standards, we feel shame for our ignoble deeds or words. When we betray faith or family, it should awaken in us sentiments of shame for our perfidy. When we gravely sin, it stings the conscience which calls us to contrition and to seek pardon.
The Benefits of Shame
Shame serves as an early warning system. When triggered, it asks us to change our ways. It represents a spectacular clash between right and wrong. This strong sentiment makes us see the malice of our acts and their lasting consequences to our reputations.
Thus, a sense of shame benefits all society. It is not limited to the individual reflections but extends to how others reflect upon us. Many are persuaded to abandon wicked ways for fear of the shame it will bring upon them, their communities and families.
With the barriers of shame in place, society can set high standards of conduct. It can propose uplifting perspectives and noble deeds. The fear of shame gives rise to rich collections of customs, fashions and manners that protect us from the worst follies of our fallen nature.
This perspective is only possible in a metaphysical world. The good, true and beautiful then occupy a place of honor because people recognize that there are things more important than life and comfort. People are drawn heavenward to a God who created the world with meaning and purpose.
A World of Empty Materialism
Thus, the loss of shame in today’s world comes from a profound change in values. Our materialistic world overwhelms the sentiments of the soul, and we seek only maximum comfort and pleasures.
Our individualistic world turns everything into an obsession for our well-being and gratification to the point that we identify as whatever we care to be.
Our metaphysical world is hollowed out, and all that is left are ruins from times past. Thus, the sense of shame is deadened and suffocated by a postmodern wasteland without narratives or ideals. Shame occasionally returns in times of depression and boredom. However, it is quickly swept away by a loud and restless culture that bids us be merry amid our emptiness.
It is not because we have lost certain habits or wear different clothes that we have no shame. We have lost the high standards and lofty principles that once governed our actions. We no longer live in a metaphysical world that supports a notion of shame. Only a rejection of our materialistic mindset and a return to God will restore our much-need sense of shame.