Wednesday, March 5, 2008

His Roving Eyes

With this, I give you the Guest Blog.

I am surrounded by clever people, people with big, wide-open hearts, and people who cling to the foibles of their life as I do. David is one of those people. Below, he writes about something that has been both a motivator and a roadblock, something any self-proclaimed "dork" can attest to.

By: David W.B. Dick

In the preamble to their chapter "Domains of Shame" in the 1998 book "Shame: Interpersonal Behaviour, Psychopathy and Culture," authors Deborah Greenwald and David Harder describe the emotion as an adaptive signal that helps us avoid negative social consequences. Because shame is an example of a directly adaptive emotion, one that orients our behaviour in an unmitigated way, it makes sense that even years later, the burn of shame is so much more immediate than the other emotions we conjure up at will. I remember some happy times, I remember some sad times, but my moments of intense shame, I can tick off one by one like a laundry list, and the swell of humiliation that floods back is more present than anything other memories can reproduce.

I started to write this essay with the preamble already formed. I knew I would be writing about shame - but THE moment of shame that I was about to write about didn't strike me until the writing was well underway. It's something I don't think about often; perhaps the counterpoint to the intensity of shame is the fervency with which we are able to block it out.

This story takes place in about 1983. I was not yet in grade 1. I was at a stationery store in St. Thomas, left wandering the aisles while my mother went about business. And two things caught my eye: a row of toy gumball machines filled with tiny erasers in different colours, shaped like gumballs, and a styrofoam block packed with little clips on springed hinges, each in a different colour and with a little rainbow over the block-letter phrase "God Loves You!" And I was very young, and bored. I noticed one of the gumball-shaped erasers had escaped its gumball machine. Or maybe that's revisionism; maybe I turned the crank. And I noticed one of these clips was broken - backless, unmated. A clip that couldn't clip - as useful as one-handed applause. Taken on their own, these two artifacts were garbage. But I could give them a home. They went in my pocket.

My mistake was telling my sister when we got home. Stupidly, I thought she'd keep my secret, that the bonds of fraternity were stronger than filial loyalty. She did not.

I don't remember much clearly after that, except that my ears got very hot, and my eyes welled up with tears. Looking back, at the blur of events, I remember it like I remember my nights of extreme drunkenness - dimly, disoriented - the difference being that as I type, remembering this, I feel sick to my stomach. I feel nauseous when I dwell on how I had to wait until my father got home, pleaded not to be taken back to the store, the long drive over, listened as he explained how I had taken something and it had to be paid for, watched as the clerk looked at the two bits of junk in his hand and tried awkwardly to calculate their worth, looking bemusedly from the man to the sobbing red-faced boy and back again.

There was no lecture on right and wrong or personal property - just a demonstration that what we take, we pay for. I can't imagine I would have remembered what he said anyway. But the shame - that I remember, and always will. As for the whole social modification thing, I haven't stolen so much as a pencil since that day. But when does a lesson become a neurosis? Do we really need to conjure up such negative feelings on demand? Humiliation can be a great teacher, it's true, but a ruthless one. When we start shutting off rooms of ourselves, nailing the doors shut because they're too painful to enter, we start to forget who we were - maybe that's a loss of self, but maybe it's a way to cope.

A few months ago I pulled out a diary from my mid-teens and every entry was so excruciating to reread that I had to stop. I couldn't reconcile myself with the embarrassment of the person portrayed in the pages I'd written. If I had to go through life acknowledging daily the person I used to be, I would be unable to function. No matter how petty the peccadillo, we need to be able to pretend like it never happened. Shame has a way of rearing its head at the times it's provoked, but thank God that in the interim we can let the wretched beast lie.


  1. Oh God. That last paragraph. That's me! Really. I have all my old diaries. I used to think I would save them forever... treasure the memories and nostalgia and all that rubbish. But now I want to BURN THEM. I'm terrified someone will find them and discover that deep down, I was (am? I shudder to think) a melodramatic sobbing heap of pretentious vocabulary words. Oh the shame of it all.

  2. Shame is a force indeed.

    Excellent guest post - bravo!

  3. Oh God. I feel ill. Unlike "thiskid", I responded to my embarrasment towards my diaries by pitching them in the garbage. I didn't want to be reminded of how miserable and pathetic I was. Now I regret, a little, that they are gone. Maybe just knowing they were around was enough of a warning to me against apathy? Oh well...too late now!

  4. Gorgeous, gorgeous post. An elegantly wrought description of a universal emotion.

    In my more...hopeful...moments I like to think that shame provides us a way to smooth our rough edges, and not necessarily a means of closing doors to ourselves. (Now, mixing metaphors, THAT is shameful!)

  5. Interesting read given the fact I'm in the middle of Daring Greatly.