An Exploration of Sacred Parenting and Education

Listening to Shame

In Healing, Marriage, parenting, Uncategorized on June 28, 2012 at 9:13 pm

Water says to the dirty, “Come here.” The dirty one says, “I am so ashamed.” Water says, “How will your shame be washed away without me.” Rumi

A friend of mine phoned me a few days ago seeking some advice and to be consoled. He felt his son was wrongly accused of something by his teacher and was pressurised into confessing he was the culprit. His teacher arrived at this conclusion from a survey. This happened over a period of two weeks during which he was made fun of in the playground and called names such as “theif”. As my friend disclosed further details it seemed his teachers were indirectly suggesting he was unreliable and untrustworthy. The irony is the incident that lead up to this involved him being selected for a task that would need a person of responsible – delivery of some money. As a result of his ‘lying’ he was suspended for a few days. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was innocent, what an impact this would have on his character, self-esteem and educational experience. If he was guilty, then why his mistake had to be turned into something shameful.  Brene Brown in her intriguing TED talk explains the difference between shame and guilt as Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad. Guilt is I did something bad“.

For me the issue is not only to do in schools but also work places, mosques, churches, hospitals, online social websites with the increasing cases of cyber bullying, suicide and child sex abuse  -i.e. any place where one’s integrity is potentially at risk as a result of how rules are enforced. Brown also mentions how shame is “an epidemic in our culture. And to get out from underneath it, to find our way back to each other, we have to understand how it affects us and how it affects the way we’re parenting, the way we’re working, the way we’re looking at each other”. Further more, “Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. And here’s what you even need to know more. Guilt, inversely correlated with those things. The ability to hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive.”

I was moved by her TED talk but also questioned that if shame is such an epidemic why is there so little awareness about it? – In parenting books, schools, hospitals, teacher training courses? Why is there so little talk about it? Why does it take a TED talk to bring this to our awareness as though it were a ‘discovery’ of something new. I think many adults, often unknowingly, carry much shame and I as a parent am interested in exploring this both within myself and how I address behavior issues in m child. It might also be about how we work with doubts and fears in children. As Brown explains, “Shame drives two big tapes – ‘never good enough’ and if you can talk it out of that one, ‘who do you think you are’.”

What I also found interesting in her talk is the power of vulnerability and how its in fact not a weakness but the basis of courage and if we are going to find our way back to each other, she says, it has to be through empathy and vulnerability. It made me look at how I can explore this to my daughter when she might feel vulnerable and how I can show her to find courage in that state. I guess, one level it would start with encouraging creativity, celebrate mistakes as life lessons and learning to be flexible. It reminded me of how certain martial arts which are more Yin in their approach, such as Aikido, with students being trained to receive an attack and re-direct, can often be more effective and powerful then some of the Yang forms of martial arts. So there’s a power, in fact greater power, in just being open and receptive to the unknown. Mohammed Ali illustrated this best in his boxing style. With a motto to To fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee’ he would fight with his hands down inviting a punch from his opponent during which time his opponent would leave himself open to one of his lightening speed anchor punches. Spiritually, for me, there is great joy in just being totally vulnerable and naked before God. This is what the prayer means to me. I have no other place to go, so Beloved, I am here before You – do with me as You may. Like the pilgrims to on their way to Mecca, in two pieces of white cloth, which signifies their shroud,  say ‘labayk, Allah humma labayk” “Here I am at Thy service O Lord, here I am”.

What I also felt was interesting in Browns talk is how shame is organised by gender and how men and women experience it differently. Shame, for women, is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be. And it’s a straight-jacket. For men, shame is not a bunch of competing, conflicting expectations. Shame is one, do not be perceived as what? weak. I feel to understand genders and their differences is important not only for parenting boys and girls but also for the family dynamic, especially in a time when gender roles which were traditionally held are being re-thought and a new wave of consciousness is breaking old patterns of patriarchy, hierarchy and dictatorship across the planet. (as I see it)

Recently, I’ve been reading Iron John and Robert Bly’s men’s movement (I have yet to read Upton’s critique of it). It surprised me that he didn’t write any poetry to do with his father until much later on in life as he avoided dealing with the painful issues he had with him. I was also surprised to see how many American men carry wounds they attribute to their fathers. One of the things I gathered from his work was that guilt turns into shame when we don’t talk about it but send the child off to his/her room or keep silent. Going back to the Prophet pbuh, there are countless examples of how he engaged people’s mistakes through compassion and dialogue.

Brown adds a new point for us to consider – and that’s how men in her research are experiencing shame from the opposite gender and visa versa: “You show me a woman who can sit with a man in real vulnerability and fear and I’ll show you a woman who has done incredible work. You show me a man who can sit with a women who has just had it and can’t do it anymore and his first response is not ‘I unloaded the dishwasher’ but he really listens … I’ll show you a guy who has done a lot of work”.

  1. Wonderful words, which I will come back too for further understanding..

  2. This is so important to say, what you’ve written here. Children should be gently guided with a compassionate heart through conversation. The act of shaming only destroys a child’s light and worth and brands him/her until he/she believes it and becomes what he/she never was or was never meant to be. I feel for the boy and his father because of the recklessness of one teacher. Beautiful poem.

    Big fan of Brown’s from the TED forum.

  3. Thanks.

    The father came visit me the other day, to see how my leg is healing. I thought his update on the situation was interesting. When he asked why he finally confessed, the boy replied, “because you weren’t listening to me”. Maybe that’s where education begins. By listening. Rumi starts his masnavi with ‘Listen to the reed…’

  4. Shame, Negative and Positive

    I concur with much of what has been said here about the negative consequences of shame, but I would like to make some balancing comments to draw out what may be positive in the concept of shame in its highest sense, since it is of course integral to spiritual development within Islamic and Sufi tradition.

    First, an anecdote which recollects a negative experience of shame in my own education: I went to a traditional prep school in the 50’s and cricket was very important, not merely as a game, but as a vehicle for character-training and instruction in ‘British values’. Once a year, there was an inter-house cricket tournament and umpires were chosen from boys not playing in any of the teams. I found myself as an 11-year-old umpiring the final, a great honour. At a critical moment in the game, I heard a loud appeal for a run out (a player who, in the course of a ‘run’, had not reached the crease before being stumped, usually by the wicket keeper), but I was day-dreaming and did not see what had happened. Instinctively, I put up my finger to declare him out, assuming that an appeal would have been made for good reason, but in fact he had been in by a mile. In those days, the decision of the umpire was final, of course, and so the hapless batsman (to add insult to injury, the school cricket captain, no less!) was dismissed and the other team went on to win the final.

    The next morning in school assembly, the incident was the main topic in the Headmaster’s address to the boys, and my shameful failure as an umpire was publicly exposed as evidence of a serious defect of character and a dastardly betrayal of British values. To give someone out who was in! Just not cricket. What a dreadful crime, something unthinkable and utterly at variance with my purpose in life as a budding English gentleman and torch-bearer for higher civilisational values. My sense of shame and humiliation was palpable, and I can recollect it clearly to this day, over half a century later.

    To be fair, I should add, that on another occasion, I was held up by the same headmaster as a paragon of the type of boy the school was striving to turn out! I had been to the dentist, and had to have three teeth removed. This was done under gas in those days, and I felt very sick when I regained consciousness after the extractions. I staggered to the waiting room, but then realised that I had not thanked the dentist, so although I was feeling ghastly, and barely able to stand, I staggered back to the surgery, thrust out my hand to shake the dentist’s hand, and said ‘Thank you very much, sir.’ It happened that the dentist went to the same club as the headmaster of my school and he told him how impressed he was by my courtesy and stoicism. In assembly the following day, the incident was hailed as a great credit to the school, and I was publicly praised for my exemplary fortitude in adversity. What could be more commendable than the stiff upper lip?

    Now, one can legitimately regard the cricket incident as a negative act of public ‘shaming’ and I agree with those posts which identify what is potentially damaging in such acts. Shaming clearly has a negative aspect. Personal denigration and humiliation of children by teachers may thankfully be rare in school assemblies these days, but we all know that internet shaming and bullying by other children is on the rise, and that children’s lives may be made a misery by the shame and worthlessness they are made to feel for not having the right ‘stuff’ or the latest designer goods. Worst of all is the conflation of ‘shame’ with family’ honour’ and the oppression, rejection and even fatal violence (usually to girls) which can be a consequence of aberrant parenting rooted in cultural practices and attitudes. ‘Reality’ (i.e. pseudo-reality, mostly fabricated) television shows about dysfunctional families with ‘feral’ children, hyper-strict parents, draconian nannies, ‘the naughty step’ and the like, merely sensationalise the issues for the purposes of ‘entertainment’.

    But, given all that, I would like to apply a corrective in the interest of balance and make a case for the value of shame, provided that it does not wound or oppress the soul. Such a case rests on understanding the foundation of Islamic ethics not only in the Qur’anic assertion that Muslims are a ‘community of the middle way’ but also from the idea of the golden mean in the philosophy of Aristotle, the pivot of Al-Ghazali’s classic exposition. For Al-Ghazali, the trait of Courage, for example, gives rise to nobility (karam), intrepidity (najda), manliness (shahama), greatness of soul (kibar al-nafs), endurance (ihtimal), clemency (hilm), steadfastness (thabat), the suppression of rage (kazm al-ghayz), dignity (waqar), affection (tawaddud), and other praiseworthy qualities. But when unbalanced on the side of excess, it leads to recklessness, arrogance (salaf), quickness of anger (istishata), pride (takabbur) and vainglory (‘ujb). Conversely, when defective, it leads to ‘cowardice’ and ‘moral lethargy’, holding oneself back from doing what is right and obligatory, and other vices of character. (See Tim Winter’s masterly translation and commentary on Books XXII and XXIII of Al-Ghazali’s Ihya ‘ulum al-din “Revival of the Religious Sciences” (Kitab Riyadat al-nafs “On Disciplining the Soul” and Kitab Kasr al-shahwatayn “On Breaking the Two Desires”), Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1995, pp. 21-22).

    In the same way, it seems to me there is a quality of ‘shame’ which lies at the golden mean , just as there are negative qualities associated with excess or defect of this quality. I have remarked on how excess of it can be wounding and damaging, but defect or absence of it also has its negative consequences, encouraging shamelessness, immodesty, absence of remorse, denial of personal responsibility, and the narcissism and exaggerated ‘self-esteem’ which comes from a culture of ‘I’m-worth-it self-entitlement’. As a teacher many years ago, I remember telling off a boy who jumped the queue at a school meal. I told him to go the back of the queue, and had no compunction in telling him he should be ashamed of himself. His response was to tell me that his father had told him it was OK to push his way to the front because he paid such high fees (the school was indeed the most expensive independent school in the country) and he expected his ‘lad’ to take every step to gain advantage over others if he could get away with it! There was certainly no way I was going to tolerate such shameless arrogance. A hadith of the Prophet comes to mind: If you feel no shame, then do whatever you wish.

    So what does the Qur’an and Islamic spiritual tradition say about shame? The concept of shame occurs in as many as 60 surahs of the Qur’an. Consider Qur’an 2:61: And [remember] when you said: “O Moses, indeed we cannot endure but one kind of food; pray, then, to thy Sustainer that He bring forth for us aught of what grows from the earth – of its herbs, its cucumbers, its garlic, its lentils, its onions.” Said [Moses]: “Would you take a lesser thing in exchange for what is [so much] better? Go back in shame to Egypt, and then you can have what you are asking for!” And so, ignominy and humiliation overshadowed them, and they earned the burden of God’s condemnation: all this, because they persisted in denying the truth of God’s messages and in slaying the prophets against all right. (Muhammad Asad comments: ‘The verb habaṭa means, literally, “he went down a declivity”; it is also used figuratively in the sense of falling from dignity and becoming mean and abject. Since the bitter exclamation of Moses cannot be taken literally, both of the above meanings of the verb may be combined in this context and agreeably translated as “go back in shame to Egypt.” Qur’an 6:151 instructs us: do not commit any shameful deeds, be they open or secret; and Qur’an 16:90 advises us that God enjoins justice, and the doing of good, and generosity towards [one’s] fellow-men; and He forbids all that is shameful.
    In discussing the education of children, Al-Ghazali has this: When the signs of discretion appear in him he should again be watched over carefully. The first of these is the rudiments of shame, for when he begins to feel diffident and is ashamed of certain things so that he abandons them, the light of the intellect has dawned in him, whereby he sees that certain things are ugly, and different from others, and begins to be ashamed of some things and not others. This is a gift to him from God (Exalted is He!) and a good foretoken that his traits will be balanced, his heart pure, and his intellect sound when he enters upon adulthood
    (bayan 10 of Book 22 of the Ihya ‘ulum al-din).

    There is also an intimate connection between shame and modesty (haya). In Sufism, haya, the instinctive feeling of shame, bashfulness, and refraining from saying or doing anything improper or indecent, is used to describe one who, out of awe of God, seeks to avoid displeasing Him. It reflects the definition of ihsan as to worship God as if you see Him, and if you cannot see Him, then indeed He sees you. Does he not know that God sees (all things)? (96:14). It also has a clear connection to taqwa, consciousness and awe of God, including the awareness and vigilance which seeks to guard oneself from degenerate influences that increase one’s separation from God.

    The thoughts of four great Sufis on shame:
    1. For Junayd al-Baghdadi, haya includes consciousness of personal defects and faults;
    2. Dhu al-Nun al-Misri holds that haya means that one constantly feels shame in his or her heart on account of personal sins and offences, and is therefore careful about his or her actions;
    3. In al-Qushayri’s Al-Risala God declares: O son of Adam! So long as you maintain your modesty and feeling of shame before Me, I make people forget your defects. The Lord of Might and Dignity also said to Jesus, upon him be peace: O Jesus, first advise your own selfhood. If it accepts your advice, then you may advise others, or else you must feel ashamed of yourself before Me.
    4. Rumi exhorts us to use our faculties wisely and virtuously so as to avoid shame on ‘Resurrection Day’:

    On Resurrection Day
    God will say,
    “What did you do
    with the strength and the energy
    that your food gave you
    on Earth?
    How did you use your eyes?
    What did you make with your five senses
    while they were dimming and playing out?
    I gave you hands and feet as tools
    for preparing the ground for planting.
    Did you, in the health I gave,
    do the plowing?”
    You will not be able to stand
    when you hear those questions.
    You will bend double with shame,
    and finally acknowledge the glory.

    This post has extended well beyond what I had intended, but that is a measure for me of how important it is always to distinguish the positive and negative aspects of any concept or quality. By all means we should protect children from the shame and humiliation which wounds and darkens the soul, but there is a case too in these times of often unwarranted self-esteem to reclaim the positive sense of shame and modesty which is linked to the innate faculty of realistic self-examination, a continual process of internal scrutiny which moves us from bondage to the commanding or compulsive self through self-reproach to the state of the soul at peace with God.

  5. Dearest Jeremy,

    Many thanks for this. I hope to follow this up with another post at some time. Many thoughts come to mind. One being what is a norm? A boy and girl holding hands may have been considered immodest at one-time but nowadays much more is considered ‘normal’. Judgment is intimately linked with with this theme too. There are countless stories of people who are judged by society to be ordinary or sinners but are in fact held in high esteem by the Divine, or held in high esteem by society (martyrs, scholars, devout) but will not be so on the day of reckoning. This bring to mind Joan of Arc, a lady I greatly admire, when brought to trial says ‘oh you who judge me, you too will be judged in court beyond this court’ (paraphrasing). But what is the day of reckoning if it isn’t all our delusions and veils being removed in the light of Haqq’. Maybe the day of Arafat, as Kabir Dede wrote, is such a moment.

    Also, often children are asked to say ‘sorry’. I think it was Alfie Kohn who questioned if we are teaching them to express something they don’t feel. Your comment made me think about how shame can be explored with a child without it turning into them being ashamed.

    Much to explore – thanks once again for triggering this off… I hope others can contribute posts/comments too.


  6. Greetings,

    This is an important post. Thank you for it.

    You raise many significant points, like the question of why things like shame (and the other associated mental disorders), so important as they are to address and resolve, are often buried beneath everything receiving so little attention. It seems that this occurs often in life, at least modern life.

    Modernity often runs from these important issues, paying more attention to far more superficial ones. As you know, the ancient cultures often had mechanisms in place, often quite natural-looking, that prevented, addressed, resolved, and closed these breakdowns of the spirit.

    Your blog, and the many fine posts it brings us, does a great thing to highlight what is important in life. Please keep up the great work.

    All good wishes,


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