This series of posts has been examining pain and turmoil, particularly the pain and turmoil of fear and shame. Both of these emotions helped drive Laura’s fight to overcome aphasia. I, on the other hand, felt tremendous guilt about going to work and leaving her at home. Atul Gawande compares shame and guilt as follows: “… guilt is what you feel when you have done something wrong.” You feel shame when you are “what was wrong.” (Gawande 61)
To compare shame and guilt, let’s consider a character created precisely to embody both, Styron’s Sophie Zawistowski. In her discourse to the narrator of Sophie’s Choice about why someone would become a kapo in the camp, Sophie observes that
the Nazis … turned people into sick animals, so if what the people done was … like animals, then you have to understand it, … because you knew how easy it was for you to act like an animal too.
Sophie knows this, but she is mystified that she still
should feel so much guilt over all the things I done there. And over just being alive. This guilt is something I cannot get rid of and I think I never will. (Styron  349)
When Sophie finally tells Stingo, the narrator, that not only was her father a vicious anti-Semite, but that she was at times his willing acolyte, she adds
… I didn’t feel any guilt about my father and what he had written. But I did feel often this terrible shame, which is not the same as guilt. Shame is a dirty feeling that is even more hard to take than guilt ….” (568) (original emphasis)
Sophie focuses on “bad me” when she says that she became a “sick animal.” Guilt imagines “bad me” with the emphasis more on the bad than on me. Shame imagines “dirty me,” with the emphasis more on me than on dirt. And disgust imagines the dirt so strongly that we have to look away. When we feel disgust, we are trying to avoid “facts about ourselves that are difficult to face.” (Nussbaum  206) Disgust was Laura’s predominant feeling about the effects of Decadron on her body.
Laura anticipated that she would be made fun of if others saw her aphasia. Charlotte Delbo felt the eyes of the feverish Aurore, watching as she drank her bit of water without sharing. According to Bernard Williams, “The basic experience connected with shame is that of being seen, inappropriately, by the wrong people, in the wrong condition.” (78) Or, as Aristotle observes, “We feel more shame about a thing if it is done openly, before all men’s eyes. Hence the proverb, ‘shame dwells in the eyes’.” (R. 1384a35ff.)
After being forced to make her infamous choice, Sophie feels shame when her daughter Eva looks back as the guard carries her away nach links. Sophie’s tears help her not to see Eva’s look. The narrator Stingo and Sophie’s lover Nathan also function as others with respect to Sophie’s guilt/shame. Nathan displays the anger which Williams associates with the emotion of guilt. Stingo struggles with shame over his whiteness. But what her children, Eva and Jan, see lies at the heart of Sophie’s dilemma and shame. Her duties to them as mother are at the core of her guilt.
Shame is not just a matter of being found out, not just the “fear of being seen.” If that were so, then shame would never be internalized. Shame is about something that is admired or not, despised or not. It’s not just about the feelings that others may or may not have, or that we ourselves may or may not have. Not being able to say the right word, not being able to remember what the writing on a page signified—that was not acceptable to Laura, whether others saw her or not. Fearing that they might see her drove her to avoid that shame. Of course, she acted as her own observer of her own loss of language, not just on her own account, as much as that hurt, but also as a representative of the group whose disdain she feared.
The English philosopher Bernard Williams provides an excellent analysis of the differences between shame and guilt in his book Shame and Necessity. Even though Williams notes that “a loss of power” or “being at a disadvantage” is at the root of shame, he focuses on the shame of the perpetrator, not the victim. The perpetrator’s internal observer embodies “how it will be for one’s life if one acts in one way rather than another.” (Williams 222)
Today we may think that guilt is “a more transparent emotion than shame,” but that’s because we isolate guilt from the other parts of how we see ourselves, from what we want and need, and generally because we separate guilt even from much of our “ethical consciousness.” Through guilt we pay attention to those whom we have wronged or injured. Guilt demands that we repair what has been done to them, but guilt does not help us to understand how we relate to what happened.
The Tibetan teacher Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche uses the term “bad me” to explain how guilt gets stuck on itself and “never faces the wrongdoing straightforwardly. There’s just this strong emotion of ‘… I wish I didn’t do it’.” He contrasts guilt, which blames such actions on a “bad me,” with regret, which openly admits “I did it.” We will talk more about regret when we discuss grief in the posts under “I will miss you,” focusing in particular on Nietzsche’s opening of regret to say: not only did I do it, but thus I will it.
Whereas Dzigar sees guilt as closing in on a bad self, Williams sees guilt as closing the process of remaking
the self that has done these things and the world in which that self has to live. Only shame can do that, because it embodies conceptions of what one is and how one is related to others. (Williams 94)
In this vein, Martha Nussbaum (2004, 206) describes Laura’s drive to overcome aphasia when she notes that shame “goads us onward with regard to … goals and ideals.” Laura never felt guilty about her aphasia as she worked hard to remake her competent professional and intellectual self.
At the outset of this post, I mentioned my twinges of guilt about leaving Laura home by herself. Since, as I have reported elsewhere, she insisted that I keep working, I never really had much chance to cultivate that guilt. But I did experience a shame that Williams does not describe: the shame of the onlooker who is seen seeing the disgrace of the shamed? This takes us back to the Vulgate’s use of turpitudo for nakedness, and by extension shame. Charlotte Delbo mentions women who saw their mothers naked at Auschwitz. As a caregiver I felt shame for seeing the most intimate bodily details of Laura’s suffering, details no one would ever see if she weren’t weak and disabled. I felt that shame under her gaze. I can’t say how the shame of being seen seeing the bodily failings of a loved one might be different from the shame of seeing a loved one’s moral failings: professional failure, political defeat, weakness, and other things on Aristotle’s list (R. 1383b20ff.). The point here is that it is the eyes of the loved one seeing him seeing her turpitudo (nakedness, dirt) that shame the caregiver.
In this context it is difficult to agree with Aristotle that good people don’t feel disgrace because they haven’t done bad things. He says that can we only feel shame for voluntary actions. (NE IV.9 1128b10-35) On the other hand, he does say that we do feel ashamed when things are done to us “that involve us in dishonor and reproach,” whether that doing is past, present, or future. (R. 1384a18-20) See Williams’ Shame and Necessity for an extended discussion of how we might feel shame or guilt for an involuntary act or situation.
In sum, what do we do when we do shame or do guilt or disgust or regret?
- When and how we realize that another sees us as not, we imagine shame.
- When and how we fixate on ourselves as not, we imagine guilt.
- When and how we see ourselves as not, we imagine disgust.
- When we open to our having done not, we imagine regret.
Remember that we use not as an adverb, not a noun, and that we imagine as much with each breath as with each thought.