Shame

Photo by @felipepelaquim on Unsplash

FLASH Fiction Challenge 100 – Day 25

I was sixteen years old and a junior in high school when I uttered the fateful sentence that would change how several classmates felt about me.

“My dad dumped our dog, Shadow, yesterday,” I said. I had no idea what would happen next.

There was a bit of Q&A, clarifying what I had meant by ‘dumped.’ I already regretted my slip.

‘Yes, my dad drove Shadow into the middle of the country. Yes, he then let the dog out of the car. Yes, he then drove away, leaving our poor dog behind to fend for itself.’

Oh, no! How could he?” one student said.

That’s so cruel!” said another.

And on and on, like that.

I felt my face burn hot with the shame of my accidental confession. More of a slip than a confession, I hadn’t told my classmates this, seeking absolution for whatever part I might have in this. I was only talking. But the immediate, energetic judgments that fell onto my head made me realize something fundamental; I was different from them. Their reaction had been quick, decisive, and virtually unanimous. Which, in my book, meant one thing; they were right. It was wrong, shameful, cruel for my dad to have driven a family pet out to the middle of nowhere and just let it go.

My life experiences since then have only deepened that conviction in me. I know dad did the best he could. I see how many of his actions were only repeating things that his parents had deemed acceptable. ‘It’s only a dog – let it go,’ ‘it’ll be fine on its own,’ etc. All absurd ideas, all demonstrably, verifiably wrong.  

Dogs are precious creatures that give us unconditional love. For an owner to abandon them for any reason, especially in such a manner, is appallingly cruel.

But my innocence and my reactions are what I’m more interested in today.

I did not know that other families were different, that each developed their unique code of conduct, values, ethics, unspoken list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. I assumed that every family dumped dogs. And this reflects poorly on much of our society.

I’m not here to vilify my dad or my mom. They did, spoke, and acted as they saw their parents do. Only education and a changed perspective can break such inherited patterns of behavior and ignorance. I got mine in the form of a nearly free public education. With the financial aid packages I received from 1979 to 1984, I was able to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering. It was my ticket out of the small town where I lived.

Maybe dad had said something in high school once, made a similar slip? Did his cheeks burn with the same shame I’d felt? Did he immediately shut up and shut down under the withering weight of all the judgment?

I shut down a lot after that. I felt apart from them. They lived and moved in a different world from me. I lived in a world of shameful actions, ignorance, and dumped dogs. Even now, I can recall the hot feeling of being found less than; the awful feeling of being judged.

Even if no one was judging me directly, they had found the actions of my father cruel. I came from him, which meant I was like him. I was guilty of his sin. (If not literally, then figuratively somehow.)

My dad was judged and found wanting, which meant I had come up short as well. It all added up to a toxic feeling of shame.

Someone once described the difference between guilt and shame as follows. Guilt is a bad feeling that is rooted in what you do. Shame is a bad feeling that is rooted in what you are. Guilt can lead to changed behaviors, confessions, resolutions, change. Shame is always a toxic, destructive feeling that leads to isolation, depression, despair, and addiction. One of the primary reasons I’ve been so opposed to organized Christianity is because of its slavish devotion to ‘original sin.’

You are born a worm!

You are nothing without God!

Without God’s forgiveness, you will burn in a lake of fire forever.

These are all messages of shame. They are all toxic messages, and they are all false. While I remain agnostic, I allow for the possibility of something. But I’m highly skeptical of the materialistic interpretation of God and the abject cruelty of sentencing someone to an infinite amount of pain for simply not believing. That’s not a loving father figure. That’s a tyrant.

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