Guilt is an overrated emotion. It is temporary. Shame, however, stays with you forever.
Both are complex emotional states, consisting of an elementary, primal emotional component, as well as a higher cognitive component. In the case of guilt, this cognitive component consists of a form of social responsibility. Guilt is a present state condition. As such, it is fairly easy to dismiss or ignore or rationalize away.
Shame, on the other hand, is guilt plus memory, or guilt squared, guilt revisited, recreated, relived, and each time the unpleasant experience is as fresh as the first time. Not like grieving, which, though it never goes away, at least gets moderated and diluted some. The experience of shame is the same every time. There's no scar tissue built up to block the pain.
I experienced a shameful moment. I was in, I think, 3rd or 4th grade. There was a boy in our school, and I'll call him Troy Clevick. (This was not his real name. I call him that to hide from my own shameful behavior).
Troy had what today would be called developmental problems. He was partly deaf, with a lisping speech impediment, was mentally slow, painfully awkward and clumsy, and had a large oafish appearance with round jug head with big chimp ears. As such, Troy received a fair amount of teasing at school, but, given this was small tight-knit community, the teasing was never bullying nor excessively cruel. When it was time to play, Troy played with the group. No one was outcast in our grade school.
So, then, one summer, I got a telephone call from Troy. Because of his speech impediment, it was difficult to even know who was calling, or what he had to say. Eventually, after several "What?"s from my end, and a repetition of his garbled message, I figured out it was Troy, and Troy was inviting me to his birthday party. And here is the shameful moment, which even today causes blood to rush to my cheeks and my eyes to sting. Troy, after struggling to convey his wishes received the following treatment from me:
Eventually, my mom asked me who it was. I replied it was Troy, that he wanted me to go to his birthday party, and that I had said no. Her reply was, "You are going to his birthday party. You will call him right back and tell him you are going to his birthday party". And with that, she dialed the number and put me on the phone. I got his mother, Lucy Clevick. With my mom standing over, glaring, I told Mrs. Clevick I would like to come to Troy's birthday party. It was the coming Saturday. Selfish little asshole that I was, I dreaded the moment. We went to the Triangle Toy Store and bought Troy a present.
Surprisingly, my memories of the birthday party were that it was a very pleasant time. The weather was cool and dry for August. Troy's family lived in a nice country house at the edge of Spectacle Lake. Not on the water, but close to hand. Mrs. Clevick was an especially gracious and attractive woman. The ice cream and cake was spectacular. The games a load of fun. To my surprise, every other child in my class was at the party.
Stupid little asshole that I was, I did not know about the mom network in our school system in our little community. I was not aware that, like some close-knit hunter/gatherer tribe, there were no outcasts within it, regardless of differences.
Thinking back now, I looking at, well, not only my shamefully cruel behavior, but now, possessed of a thoughtful empathy, the struggles that Troy and his mother and family went through. They fought hard to keep Troy from being abandoned in some institution, struggled valiantly to keep him involved with the other children of his community. And the other people (the parents sure, but mostly the moms and grandmoms) in my community did what they could to keep him involved in it as well.
I relive this shameful moment. I do not try to avoid it. It reminds what it means to be part of a group, part of a community. Not just a collection of individuals, of selfish assholes pursuing their own little selfish asshole lives, but of a greater whole with a larger purpose. With numbers comes strength, but also dignity.
My conduct then fucking breaks my heart. But I need to do that every now and then to remain human.