Shame is a useless emotion.
In fact, I’m going to go one higher – shame is a harmful emotion.
Let’s take the following situation: I’m on the bus, and I see someone of darker complexion than myself sit down next to me. I get a little nervous because, maybe this person is a bit thuggish? Then I feel ashamed, because I’m not that sort of person to think those thoughts.
So what happens? I think of myself as non-racist. I feel bad … and then I promptly find ways to excuse my thinking and go on with my life. Because I’m really a “good person,” and that was either a momentary slip-up or excused by the bandana I saw hanging on his head (because I don’t wear bandanas, so they must be dangerous. You could put an eye out with one of those!).
What’s the grand sum of this situation? I felt bad, I didn’t change my actions, and yet I somehow remain fundamentally “good” – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.
How about we reverse this. I’m no longer a non-racist. I’m racist – not in the sense that I condone it, but in the sense that it happens to be true in this actual world rather than the ideal fantasy world I want to live in. When I get on the bus and have racist thoughts, I now see an opportunity to improve. I’m not a good person with a lapse, I’m a flawed person who’s been confronted with those flaws, and as such can seize the opportunity to correct them. A woodcut is crafted by chipping away one bit at a time.
So I can feel good about improving (I’m a step better – however small – than I had been before), and actually change my actions accordingly (since I don’t have to defend my ideal self any longer) – I’ll make eye contact and say hi perhaps. So better feelings and better actions, because I let go of already being a better person.
We all mess up, and all are messed up. We aren’t “good.” But that’s ok, because we can work each day at what’s given to us.
Of course, the flip side is that every day, we *will* have work to do. There’s no arriving at some point where we are without lack. There’s no time we’ve “done enough.” But really, that attitude – that we’re really already good – is self-serving. It’s to make ourselves feel good, precisely by disengaging from the world. Which doesn’t strike me as actually being very good people.
So let’s be free of our fantasy selves, and relish the opportunities today to grow and improve, precisely by casting off who we were yesterday. It’s of no matter – today’s self will be thrown into the garbage bin too. But not until tomorrow.