Life in the Necropolis

The recent arrest of Roman Polanski for statutory rape with a 13-year-old girl has peeled back the veil covering our cultural decay. Numerous artists, directors, and other Hollywood celebrities and powerbrokers have come out and condemned the arrest, while rationalizing his behavior and condemning what they see as unjust punishment. The public response to this has been somewhere between shock and revulsion, with many commentators, even the New York Times editorial page, expressing surprise and dismay at Hollywood’s response to a man who drugged and raped a minor.

Yet in the midst of the outrage about the crime and the response of media celebrities, there have been few if any who have grasped the implications of what this event and its response have uncovered. One can sense this confusion in the many commentaries speculating about the motives of an entertainment industry which seemingly approves and applauds such heinous behavior.

In our postmodern and post-Christian culture, we yet collectively retain an innate sense of wrong or evil behavior, while often being unable to define exactly why we find depredations such as Polanski’s reprehensible. We become even more bewildered when we encounter large swaths of seemingly intelligent individuals embracing and rationalizing such behavior. Remnants of a common moral and ethical framework for society remain, but significant segments of it no longer ascribe to the premises upon which it is based. We are faced with a new religion; a secular faith, morally amorphous and maddeningly incoherent. Yet it is rapidly becoming the dominant denomination and worldview of much of our culture.

It seems perhaps odd to describe a philosophical worldview which rejects any notion of God or moral absolutes as religion. Yet it is very much a moral and ethical framework, albeit one with considerable potential for cognitive dissonance, intellectual incoherence, and moral confusion. This growing secular orthodoxy finds its roots predominantly among those whose political leanings are leftist or progressive, although it is by no means exclusively confined to them, and may be found in its variants among libertarians and even conservatives.

What then are the doctrines and dogmas, if you will, of this rather confusing and contradictory confession?

In traditional religious understandings, especially that of the three great monotheistic faiths, the moral framework resides in absolutes established and communicated by a transcendent Being. While the specifics of what such absolutes entail and demand vary from one religious tradition to another, they all share the precept that human behavior is judged against the standards of a God, and that these standards exist above and apart from man himself. They are by their very nature transcendent. The behavior of man is judged against these unchanging principles, and resulting shortfalls ultimately must be redressed, either by compensatory good works, judgment, or by forgiveness and grace.

This secular religion, in contrast, posits the moral compass within the mind, exclusively. It is fundamentally Gnostic in nature. The morality of a given behavior is no longer judged based on a transcendent standard given and administered by a divine judge, but is rather graded by the knowledge or beliefs of the individual (or group) in question. Simply put, it is the belief system of the individual rather than his or her behavior which is the ultimate determinant of good or evil.

This core conviction gives rise to what appears to those who do not ascribe to this worldview to be a rather stunning propensity for hypocrisy. The identical behavior of two individuals, one of whom believes the “right” things, the other of whom believes the “wrong” things, will be judged in diametrically opposite ways. Those whose beliefs and politics are “correct” will have their errant behavior minimized, rationalized, justified, or ignored, while those whose beliefs are “incorrect” will be viciously condemned and castigated, despite high motives and noble intent. Our instinctive inclination to judge behavior against an unchanging moral absolute finds such arbitrary precepts irrational and frustrating — as indeed they are not really absolutes at all. What we are observing in practice is a guiding principle far removed from our instinctual dependence on moral law. That which is contradictory, hypocritical, and irrational when viewed from a traditional moral framework is in fact entirely predictable once we understand that the seat of moral judgment resides in what the individual believes, rather than what the individual does.

Postmodernism posits the notion of “narratives”, which are an understanding of culture and society largely determined by those in power. It specifically rejects the notions of Divine lawgiver or transcendent moral absolutes as mere narratives of religious power centers whose intent is to control. For the postmodernist, all behavior will ultimately be judged against their own narrative rather than an absolute which transcends culture and time. What the religionist views as a transcendent absolute is seen as nothing more than another narrative by the postmodernist — a narrative imposed by religious and paternalistic authority solely for the purpose of controlling the flock. The intersection of these two radically different worldviews makes compromise and communication virtually impossible between them, since there is no common framework of understanding or language to bridge the gap.

Even seeming linguistic commonalities lead to confusion in the interface between these cultures. For the traditionalist, the concept of evil, for example, represents a violation of moral absolutes, by individuals ultimately held responsible for their actions. In the postmodernist vocabulary, evil is corporate, embodied in institutions and groups, and is a social construct rather than a moral one. The rejection of absolute truth, and the resulting repudiation of reason as a basis for judgment, creates an exasperating comfort with contradiction, where cognitive dissonance is the norm, and that which is emotionally compelling or strongly believed becomes Truth by the mere force of conviction driven home by relentless repetition and coercive groupthink. The term “evil” thus no longer serves a universal meaning across the culture, and its use sows confusion rather than commonality. One could multiply examples without end from the linguistic miasma of politically correct speech, politics, and the mind-numbing inanity of popular culture.

The postmodern philosophy, now thoroughly inculcated throughout the culture through the vehicles of media, academia, entertainment, and politics, has created a fertile soil for the disintegration of a culture based on Western values of rationalism, moral restraint, and the sanctity and dignity of human individualism. Postmodernism is ideally suited for two outcomes: the acquisition of power, and libertinism. Power is acquired through the ruthless dismissal of all moral restraints in the achievement of pursued goals (morals serve only to advance the narrative, and may be redefined as the need arises); through the reinvention and redefinition of language to deceive and confuse; through the demonization of all who oppose the goal as the embodiment of evil; and through the erosive and relentless undermining of the traditional societal and moral constraints which oppose the desired cultural and political changes.

While at the cultural and political level this bequeaths a brutish and divisive social milieu, enforcing a collective coerced conformity of thought and speech, at the individual level, paradoxically, the very opposite occurs. Non-conformity becomes the norm, as radical individualism and autonomy breeds a disdain for restraint in appearance, behavior, and speech. With the loss of the notion that man is a reflection of a divine Creator, and accountable to a higher Being or Law, the individual must compensate for his devaluation (for we are, after all, just cosmic accidents) by becoming ever more outlandish and outrageous in ways self-destructive, offensive to others, and hideous. Michael Jackson becomes our Dorian Gray — as the rotting necropolis of the spirit seeps through the grave clothes we have so carefully wrapped, having whitewashed the entombed soul with plastic surgery, slick production, Photoshop edits and high fashion. Our Ferragamos and facelifts, our tattoos and painted toes, are but weathered signposts on the rutted road to the expansive wasteland of our inner desolation.

In this postmodern desert, where higher purpose and divine restraint are nowhere to be found, all behavior becomes subject to the self-referential and self-justifying emotionalism of self-gratification. Tolerance becomes the standard by which we increasingly accept the intolerable; only restraint, tradition, and religion remain as worthy of contempt, bigotry, depreciation, or outright hatred. Since there is no evil, evil thrives, ever becoming the norm in a cultured stripped of decency, respect, modesty, and self-sacrifice. There is but one fixed point on the postmodernist’s map: the self. With no true North to fix its moral position, the compass needle swings wildly in every direction, resting only on its own center.

The ironic truth of godless postmodernism is that its gods are legion — and they are merciless. The cruel god of Age destroys the fatuous goddess of Beauty. Gaia, worshiped in rituals of trivial privations by pitiful men and the emptied treasuries of nations, hurtles her planet relentlessly to chaos and destruction, in turns by heat or cold, despite those proffered drink offerings. The god of Human Progress weaves delusional hopes of Utopia as humankind bewitched by her visions hurtles violently downward toward Hell. The deities of science and technology deliver not sought-after salvation but ever more frightening sorcery whereby man may be enslaved, devalued, depraved, and destroyed. The worship of the trees, the sycophantic paeans to science, the lugubrious celebration of joyless lust, do naught to appease the gods: the world remains utterly beyond our control, dangerous and unpredictable and profoundly unsatisfying.

And so we turn back to the Dream: the Utopian vision of a world at peace, unified and prosperous, where all problems resolve propitiously as Mankind becomes One, while religious bigotry, ignorance and superstition fade to black. It is always but one more revolution away. But the ethereal vision remains just out of reach, its ephemeral promises an illusion. As we grasp at the shadow in the mists, rather than finding hope we find hatred; rather than finding tranquility, tyranny; rather than finding Paradise we discover a sordid pit of perdition, as our promised deliverance devolves into deviancy and our perceived blessings into barbarism.

It is a dark road down which we travel, made the more frightening by the delusional grandiosity of those whose vision propels us forward. One wishes, were it possible, to stand astride a generation gone mad and scream, Stop!! — in hopes that even some might heed, and awaken to the disaster before them. But even such might prove to no avail; the delusion is powerful, and obsessive, and intoxicating, and relentless.

And the road ahead seems likely to be littered with extraordinary wreckage.

Moving the Ancient Boundaries – IV


This is a series on the erosion of moral, cultural, and ethical boundaries in modern society:
 
 ♦ Part 1 — Moving the Ancient Boundaries

 
 ♦ Part 2 — The Rebel & the Victim
 
 ♦ Part 3 — Undermining Civil Authority

 
stone walls

Do not move the ancient boundary stone
   set up by your forefathers.

        — Proverbs 22:28 —

 

 ♦ The Assault on Religious Authority

Undermining the legitimacy of civil authority and mutating the role of government into an instrument for protecting personal licentiousness — while endlessly chasing solutions to the incorrigible problems thus generated — is a key element in the secular postmodern pursuit of a utopian dream of unbridled freedom without consequences. But it is not sufficient; other centers of authority must likewise be transformed to serve the individual over the common good, or neutralized to overcome their resistance to such trends.

Religion, which promotes transcendent values, and strives to restrain destructive individualism and promote the common good through the development of character strengths such as service, charity, self-restraint, and accountability, is a prime alternative source of authority to government — and serves to restrain its excesses and aberrant tendencies as well. As such it is a prime target for the individualist committed to promoting an unrestrained and unaccountable utopia, enforced by the levers of government power.
Continue reading “Moving the Ancient Boundaries – IV”

Moving the Ancient Boundaries – III


This is a series on the erosion of moral, cultural, and ethical boundaries in modern society:
 
 ♦ Part 1 — Moving the Ancient Boundaries

 
 ♦ Part 2 — The Rebel & the Victim

 
stone walls

Do not move the ancient boundary stone
   set up by your forefathers.

        — Proverbs 22:28 —

 
In prior posts, we began to examine some of the many ways which a society will evolve and act if it seeks to move the ancient boundaries, to chip away at absolutes, principles, and tradition in order to create a new utopia grounded in narcissism and libertinism. Here, I will continue to illustrate the means whereby an increasingly individualistic and relativistic society, having lost its moorings in faith, absolute principles, and tradition, undermines its own foundations. This post will address the undermining of civil authority and government; the next, the assault on religious authority.
 
 ♦ The Assault on Civil Authority

Authority in Western society serves — at least in theory — the people whom it governs. As embodied in government, it exists to protect, to preserve societal order and norms, and to promote the common good. It functions to protect individual members of society from harm from its renegade members, from natural dangers, such as fire or natural disasters, from large societal upheaval such as riots and civil unrest, and from threats to national security or sovereignty. This authority is embodied in both law and the necessary authorized force to restrain the destructive and centrifugal forces in society and maintain civil order.

But law and legal force alone cannot restrain such evil tendencies, short of enforcing a despotic and tyrannical rule which is the antithesis of democracy and freedom. To function optimally, authority must be based on a shared tradition of self-restraint and ethical behavior, operating under the common denominator that the good of society as a whole outweighs individual desires and priorities — and delegating the enforcement of the common good to those in authority when individual license violates societal norms and standards.

In an age of narcissistic individualism, then, authority must be undermined, for it represents a constraint and impediment to the utopian vision of ultimate human freedom posited in unrestricted individual license. For the individualist, personal gain always trumps the common good. The view of authority in such radical individualism is changed: its goal now primarily — if not exclusively — protection of the individual’s rights, and secondarily, the mitigation of the inevitable consequences of such self-centered behavior. In societies where such individualism becomes preeminent, we see the evolution of authority primarily into the guarantor of autonomy and the guarantee of relief from its effects.
Continue reading “Moving the Ancient Boundaries – III”

The Engine of Shame – Part I

This essay, the first of a two-part series, was originally posted in October 2005.
 

Steam locomotiveA wise friend–a man who helped me emerge from a period of considerable difficulty in my life–once taught me a simple lesson. In less than a minute, he handed me a gift which I have spent years only beginning to understand, integrating it into my life with agonizing slowness. It is a lesson which intellect cannot grasp or resolve, which faith only begins to illuminate–a simple principle which I believe lies close to the root of the human condition.

My friend taught me a simple distinction: the difference between guilt and shame.

While you no doubt think I am devolving into the linguistic morass of terminal psychobabble, I ask you to stick with me for a few moments. What you may discover is a key to understanding religion, terrorism, social ills such as crime and violence–and why the jerk in the next cubicle pushes your buttons so often.
Continue reading “The Engine of Shame – Part I”

Moving the Ancient Boundaries – I

Do not move the ancient boundary stone set up
    by your forefathers.
        — Proverbs 22:28 —

 
old houseAncient wisdom: a sage injunction uttered in a time when simple shepherds and farmers parsed out land for grazing and grain, speaking to the prudence of respecting contracts, negotiated agreements with those with whom we live, to abide in a measure of peace. Be honest; respect the property and possessions of those with whom you must abide; do not trade peaceful relations for parcels of land.

Yet like so much of this ancient book of Proverbs, its well runs far deeper than it appears, with ageless wisdom waiting for the discerning, those open to its application in different days and other ages. And so it seems that we, as a culture, have been hard at work for decades, if not longer, moving the boundary stones set up by our forefathers. These markers today are not simple rocks in fields or walls on hills to mark water rights or restrain wandering sheep, but are rather the cultural and moral underpinnings of that which we call Western civilization. We are busy cutting wood from the pilings to add garlands to the gables, and wondering why the house leans so far off vertical.
Continue reading “Moving the Ancient Boundaries – I”

The Engine of Shame – Pt II

The Engine of Shame - Part 2

DRGWIn my previous post on guilt and shame, I discussed their nature and differences, their impact on personal and social life, and their instrumentality in much of our individual unhappiness and communal dysfunction. If indeed shame is the common thread of the human condition–fraught as it is with pain, suffering, and evil–it must be mastered and overcome if we are to bring a measure of joy to life and peace to our spirits and our social interactions.

Shame is the most private of personal emotions, thriving in the dark, secluded lairs of our souls. It is the secret never told, the fears never revealed, the dread of exposure and abandonment, our harshest judge and most merciless prosecutor. Yet like the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain is far less intimidating than his booming voice in our subconscious mind.

The power of shame is the secret; its antidotes, transparency and grace. Shame thrives in the dark recesses of the mind, where its accusations are amplified by repetition without external reference. Shame becomes self-verifying, as each new negative thought or emotion reinforces the theme that we are rejected and without worth. It is only by allowing the light of openness, trust, and honesty that this vicious cycle may be broken.

The barriers to this liberating openness are fear and mistrust: fear that revelation of our darkest selves will lead to rejection, pain and humiliation; and lack of trust that the sharing of such darkness will be used against us to our detriment. This fear and mistrust lock us into a self-imposed prison from which there is seemingly no escape. Our only recourse becomes the adaptive but destructive defenses of withdrawal, self-attack, avoidance, or aggression.

The most dangerous type of infections in medicine are those occurring in a closed space. As the bacteria grow, they generate increasing pressure which drive deadly toxins into the bloodstream. Only by uncovering and draining the abscess can the infection be treated and health restored. And so it is with shame: we must take that which is most painful, most toxic, and release it, lest we become even more emotionally and spiritually sick.

So just how do we go about such a process? It is not something to be done lightly, as the world remains a dangerous place, and there are many who cannot bear such disclosure–and who may indeed use it against us. It is for this reason–this reasonable fear (amplified many times over in the echoes of our inner chambers of shame)–that many will not take this step until life circumstances become so difficult or painful that they have no other choice. Hence you will find this process first in the alcoholic at his bottom, at the therapist for intractable depression, at the counselor after divorce, in the prodigal son re-seeking fellowship in a grace-based church or small group.

But we need not wait for such disasters before beginning the process of addressing shame. There are a number of principles to begin the journey from shame to sanity and peace. Here are a few which come to mind:

  • Sharing of shortcomings with trusted friends: First and foremost, we must be willing to open the door, to begin sharing something of our inner selves with others. This involves finding someone trusted, someone who is a good listener and not quick to judgment. It means taking some risks, as many people may be unwilling–or unable–to be safe harbors for our vulnerabilities, failures, and shortcomings. Test the waters by sharing some small issues with others who seem trustworthy–or perhaps even better, by being open to others who may be willing to share their pain in some small way with you. Nothing builds the trust of others quite like your own vulnerability: it signals a willingness to establish a relationship based on true intimacy. We all put our best foot forward, expending great energy at maintaining our masks. But at the same time, we all hunger for the intimacy of being truly open with another.
  • Learn to listen: Our isolation begins to lessen when we hear our story repeated by others. As we begin to hear the bits and pieces of our own experiences, failures, and struggles in the lives of others, the uniqueness–and the shame–of our own experiences begins to lessen. We develop compassion for the struggles of others–and thereby become willing to accept our own shortcomings. Becoming mutually vulnerable is the essence of true, intimate relationships–and to achieve this we must be willing both to share our own weaknesses and to accept those of others.
  • Honesty: Deceit and shame go hand-in-hand–dishonesty with self and others is a requisite for the maintenance of the autocracy of shame. Dishonesty becomes habitual, making life far more complicated and difficult than one based on openness and truth. The main driving force for deceit is fear: fear of discovery, of condemnation, of judgment, of rejection. In reality, the consequences of honesty about our failures and shortcomings–particularly with those we trust and with whom we reciprocate acceptance–is far less onerous that of sustaining the fragile edifice of a life of lies.
  • The importance of forgiveness: When you begin to make yourself open to others, trusting them, you will sooner or later get hurt–perhaps intentionally, more likely inadvertently. Count on it, it’s a sure bet. Once it happens, you then have some choices: you can withdraw, no longer exposing yourself to the pain, or strike back, or carry a resentment. These approaches are proven shame-builders: they do little or nothing to visit revenge on our offenders, but rather replay the injury over and over (re-SENT-ment: to experience–to feel–again), reinforcing our loneliness and worthlessness. Forgiveness allows you to move on. It may mean taking the risk of confronting the one who has hurt you–a terrifying thought for a shame-based person–but such courage pays off in restored relationships at best, or maintaining your dignity at worst. Courage is not acting without fear, it is acting in spite of fear–and is the best antidote to fear, as reality is virtually never as bad as the scenarios our fearful minds fabricate. Bear the pain, reconcile where possible, and move on from there.
  • Other-orientation: We are designed to give, but have been programmed to receive. We try to fill our inner emptiness by getting: material stuff, the attention and admiration of others, pleasure, the oblivion of drugs or alcohol, food, sex, success, achievements in work or society. None of it works–the emptiness remains, as we are not worth something because we have something. We become worth something when we give–when our actions and efforts are helping others, improving their lives, giving them joy, help, comfort, support. This is why someone like Mother Theresa experienced a richness in life unmatched by endless hosts of wealthy, famous celebrities or business billionaires. We nod, agreeing that this is so–but no one wants to walk her path: we lack her faith, and her calling. But we don’t need to move to Calcutta to start down the same path: we can begin in small ways, one little act at a time. Make an effort to help someone out each day, somebody who doesn’t deserve it, perhaps someone you don’t like or would rather avoid. Do it when you’re too busy, or self-absorbed, or too tired. Do it willfully, not grudgingly. Don’t do it with any expectation of return. Try it–and watch miracles begin to happen, in your life and those around you.
  • Grace and mercy: Grace is receiving what we do not deserve; mercy is not receiving what we do deserve. Shame tells us we deserve nothing good, that we are tried, convicted, and condemned both by ourselves and by others. Grace trumps shame by not waiting until we are worthy, or worthwhile, or “fixed”, but by accepting us right where we are, just as we are. It must be experienced–it cannot be appropriated by logic, reason, will or effort. It is, indeed, anti-logical. It starts when you tell a friend a painful, dark secret–and hear that he has done far worse. It begins with terror at relating humiliating events, and ends with laughter and perspective about those same events. It arrives when you tell of hurting another, and receive not condemnation but understanding and guidance on repairing the damage and restoring relationships. And it shatters the gloom like shafts of light through broken clouds when the God whom you have driven away and abandoned–a God in whom you have lost all hope and confidence–instead wraps His arms around you in tears of joy at your return. When you have experienced such grace, your life will never be the same again.
  • The role of faith: People struggling with guilt and shame often turn to religion for answers and relief. This is not invariably a wise decision: religion can be of enormous benefit in overcoming these liabilities–but can also greatly exacerbate them. Guilt and shame are the golden hooks of toxic religion and religious cults, and even mainstream religious denominations which have a highly legalistic emphasis can cause far more harm than good. Cults and toxic religion lure the wounded by offering “unconditional love”–which later proves very conditional indeed. You are accepted only when you rigorously follow the rules–which may be arbitrary, capricious, or even unspoken–and interaction with “unbelievers” outside the sect is severely restricted, leading to isolation, ritualism, and depersonalization–and severe rejection should you choose to leave. Becoming enmeshed with such groups, driven by shame, is highly detrimental and a recipe for personal and emotional disaster. But true grace-based faith and spirituality can transform shame into service, guilt into gratitude. It finds the balance between a God who is just and One who is merciful. It is a place where love accepts us with all our imperfections and shortcomings–yet desires their removal that we may live with more joy and purpose, not hiding our flaws but using our own brokenness to restore, heal, and lift up others.
There was, the story goes, a holy man, who sat by the side of the road praying and meditating. As he watched and prayed, the broken of the world passed by–the crippled, the lame, the ragged poor, the sick, the blind. In his prayer, with broken heart, he asked God, “How could such a good and loving Creator see such things and do nothing about them?”

There was a long period of silence with no answer. Then, in a soft voice, God replied: “I did do something about them: I made you.”

Our shame, our brokenness, brings us great pain and wreaks much destruction in our lives. Yet it is by this very means that God equips us to be His hands, His heart, His voice, His compassion. In such can be found a purpose in life unmatched by anything else we might wish for or desire. Such are the ways of the God of endless surprise and limitless grace.

The Engine of Shame – Pt I

The Engine of Shame - Part 1

Steam locomotiveA wise friend–a man who helped me emerge from a period of considerable difficulty in my life–once taught me a simple lesson. In less than a minute, he handed me a gift which I have spent years only beginning to understand, integrating it into my life with agonizing slowness. It is a lesson which intellect cannot grasp or resolve, which faith only begins to illuminate–a simple principle which I believe lies close to the root of the human condition.

My friend taught me a simple distinction: the difference between guilt and shame.

While you no doubt think I am devolving into the linguistic morass of terminal psychobabble, I ask you to stick with me for a few moments. What you may discover is a key to understanding religion, terrorism, social ills such as crime and violence–and why the jerk in the next cubicle pushes your buttons so often. On the other hand, if you’re among those who believe guilt and shame are simply the tools of religion and society to restrict your freedom–that as a perfectly liberated postmodern person you are beyond all that–well, you are probably wasting your time reading this. But most of us recognize the influence of guilt and shame in our lives–even while trying not to focus on them, as they are uncomfortable emotional topics, best avoided if possible.

There is a tendency to conflate guilt and shame, merging them into a single human response to bad behavior or personal shortcomings. Yet they are quite different. Guilt is about behavior, shame about being. Allow me to expand on this a bit.

Guilt is an emotional–or some would say spiritual– human response to behavior or actions which violate a respected set of rules. The rules violated may be internal or external, and may be based either in reality and truth or distortion and error. The rules which may engender guilt must be respected: that is, they must originate from a valid source of authority–parents, elders, religion, law–or have been internalized into one’s personal mores or conscience from one or more such sources. Rules which are not respected pose no difficulty: I feel no guilt at not becoming a suicide martyr for Allah, since I do not respect (i.e. recognize as valid) the rules which promote such behavior. The response to violating respected rules is at its heart based on fear: fear of punishment by God or man, fear of rejection, or fear of ostracization from friends, family, or society.

Since guilt is an uncomfortable emotional state, we generally make efforts to avoid or mitigate it if possible. There are a number of means by which this can be accomplished, with greater or lesser efficacy. We may of course, practice avoidance of the behavior which induces the guilt. If the rules are legitimate and based on worthwhile principles, this is obviously a beneficial approach: if you don’t steal things, you won’t go to jail for burglary. But avoidance may prove destructive if the rules are based on error. For example, if your parents or religion have taught you that all sexual activity is wrong or evil, this can prove a huge impediment to physical intimacy and relationships in marriage.

Guilt may also be mitigated–especially when it is chronic and recurring–by changing the rules. You may leave a religion which is highly legalistic for another less so–or for none at all; you may change your situation or environment to one where the rules can be ignored and not enforced; you may seek counseling to correct perceptions about sexuality or other destructive interpersonal biases or beliefs. Or you may simple practice denial–justifying your behavior through the creation of new internal or social rules, while avoiding or rationalizing the inevitable consequences of your still-errant behavior.

So guilt may be addressed by modifying behavior or changing belief systems, through choice or denial. What then about shame?

Shame–the very word makes us uneasy, striking deeply into the core of our being. For shame is not about what we do, but about who we are. It speaks to a deep sense of unworthiness, rejection, inadequacy, and isolation. It says we are not OK, that what we truly are must be hidden. And this we do with all the energy at our disposal, throwing up an impenetrable wall to keep others out at all costs. For the essence of shame is relational–it says that if you really knew what I was like, you would be repulsed and thus reject me. The resulting isolation–real or perceived–is a devastating threat, engendering a pain so profound it approaches unbearable.

The origins of shame are varied, and not fully understood. We seem to be programmed to interpret certain words and behavior by others–especially parents and siblings in childhood–as not simply critical of our behavior, but a statement of our worth. This is an especially powerful force coming from parents, under whose authority and supervision we are molded into social beings. While this may be especially pronounced in dysfunctional or abusive homes–alcoholism, sexual abuse, and mental illness come to mind–it occurs even in well-functioning family units, and with speech and actions which are not intended as critical or demeaning, but which are interpreted as such. The soil of the soul seems fertile ground to bring forth a tainted crop of shame, even from the seemingly benign bruises of normal human interactions and relationships.

From the Judeo-Christian perspective, this propensity toward shame is understood as rooted in the spiritually-inherited rupture of our relationship with God, manifesting itself in an extreme self-centeredness and self-focus, which acts as a toxic filter letting in the destructive while keeping out the good. Having been born into a state of remoteness from God–perceived at a spiritual level as rejection by Him, though in fact just the opposite–we are acutely sensitized to rejection by others: it fits the mold perfectly. Thus every real or perceived hurt, criticism, or rejection simply confirms that we are rejected, worthless, and of no value. Our self-centered mindset insures that even events not focused on our self-value are interpreted in ways that affirm our sense of shame–hence the child that blames herself for her father’s drinking and abusiveness.

While shame lives deep below the surface–a monstrous child kept hidden from public view–its manifestations are legion, and its ability to percolate to the surface and alter our lives and behavior is formidable. The pain of shame requires response, no less than a hand on a hot stove, and it may be triggered by many means: by concerns about physical size, strength, skill, or ability; by issues of dependency or independence; by competition with others; by worries about personal attractiveness and sexuality; or when dealing with matters of personal closeness and intimacy. Thus triggered, an outward manifestation is inevitable, and will generally fall into one of these areas:

  • Withdrawal — perhaps the most natural response to pain, we retreat from its source to avoid the risk of exposing our vulnerability. Hence we steer clear of people or circumstances which may trigger shame, withdrawing into a nominally safer–but profoundly lonely–world. This response may range in manifestation from shyness up to deep, pathologic depression or psychosis.
  • Attack the Self — The loneliness of withdrawal and isolation is itself a deeply uncomfortable state, and often raises the profound terror of abandonment. To avoid such painful estrangement, many will resort to demeaning and depreciating themselves, thereby becoming subservient to others more powerful, resulting in a condition of dependency. While this may lessen the pain of isolation and abandonment, it further exacerbates the underlying shame by reinforcing one’s worthlessness and inferiority. The relationships so formed are not those of equals, and therefore satisfy the need for true intimacy poorly. Such responses range from obsequiousness and self-demeaning deference to others, to depression, and all the way to masochism, self-mutilation, and suicide.
  • Avoidance — If the shame cannot be eliminated, the feelings most surely can: shame is soluble in alcohol, can be freebased, and its pain assuaged as well by a host of other self-destructive behaviors. One’s choice of drug–chemical or behavioral–is influenced by genetics, neurochemistry, and environment, but all have the common goal of emotional oblivion. Eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive behavior, behavioral addictions to work, computers, gambling, or sex can divert the mind and stimulate sufficient endorphins to make the pain go away–at least for the moment. But the drugs and behaviors only worsen the underlying sense of failure and inadequacy, and lead to fractured and destroyed relationships, loneliness, and sometimes physical illness and death.
  • Attack Others — Rage and anger are common responses to shame, as we seek to defend our threatened worth by destroying the antagonist–or at least diminishing their worth, through sarcasm, criticism, gossip, physical, verbal or sexual abuse, or violence. But as with other coping mechanisms for shame, the outcome is invariably destroyed relationships, and adverse consequences, both legal and personal.
Thus the engine of shame drives a host of behaviors which are both personally destructive and socially disruptive. If you scratch the surface of nearly any dysfunctional personal or social problem–alcoholism and drug abuse, obesity, international terrorism–you will find at its dark heart the issue of shame. It is, at the very least, a common thread among such societal and personal liabilities, if not a central driving force.

So it behooves us to get a handle on this matter of shame, uncomfortable though it may be. Our responses to its provocations are major causes of personal agony and social crisis. But like a schoolyard bully, once confronted face-to-face, the tyranny of shame can be broken through courage and openness, and the strength of numbers. On these thoughts I will be reflecting in a subsequent essay.

The Children Whom Reason Scorns

The Children Whom Reason Scorns

You Also Bear the BurdenIn the years following the Great War, a sense of doom and panic settled over Germany. Long concerned about a declining birth rate, the country faced the loss of 2 million of its fine young men in the war, the crushing burden of an economy devastated by war and the Great Depression, further compounded by the economic body blow of reparations and the loss of the German colonies imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Many worried that the Nordic race itself was threatened with extinction.

The burgeoning new sciences of psychology, genetics, and medicine provided a glimmer of hope in this darkness. An intense fascination developed with strengthening and improving the nation through Volksgesundheit: public health. Many physicians and scientists promoted “racial hygiene” — better known today as eugenics.

The Germans were hardly alone in this interest — 26 states in the U.S. had forced sterilization laws for criminals and the mentally ill during this period; Ohio debated legalized euthanasia in the 20’s; and even Oliver Wendall Holmes, in Buck v. Bell, famously upheld forced sterilization with the quote: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough!” But Germany’s dire circumstances and its robust scientific and university resources proved a most fertile ground for this philosophy.

These novel ideas percolated rapidly through the social and educational systems steeped in Hegelian deterministic philosophy and social Darwinism. Long lines formed to view exhibits on heredity and genetics, and scientific research, conferences, and publication on topics of race and eugenics were legion. The emphasis was often on the great burden which the chronically ill and mentally and physically deformed placed on a struggling society striving to achieve its historical destiny. In a high school biology textbook — pictured above — a muscular German youth bears two such societal misfits on a barbell, with the exhortation, “You Are Sharing the Load!–a hereditarily-ill person costs 50,000 Reichsmarks by the time they reach 60.” Math textbooks tested students on how many new housing units could be built with the money saved by elimination of long-term care needs. Parents often chose euthanasia for their disabled offspring, rather than face the societal scorn and ostracization of raising a mentally or physically impaired child. This widespread public endorsement and pseudo-scientific support for eugenics set the stage for its wholesale adoption — with horrific consequences — when the Nazi party took power.

The Nazis co-opted medicine fully in their pursuit of racial hygiene, even coercing physicians in occupied countries to provide health and racial information on their patients to occupation authorities, and to participate in forced euthanasia. In a remarkably heroic professional stance, the physicians of the Netherlands steadfastly refused to provide this information, forfeiting their medical licenses as a result, and no small number of physicians were deported to concentration camps for their principled stand. As a testimony to their courage and integrity, not a single episode of involuntary euthanasia was performed by Dutch physicians during the Nazi occupation.

Would that it were still so.

In April 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world in which euthanasia and assisted suicide could be legally performed — although preceded by several decades of widespread illegal, but universally unpunished, practice. The Dutch had come into the public consciousness periodically over the previous 15 years, initially with the consideration of assisted suicide laws in Oregon, Washington, Michigan and elsewhere in the early 90’s, and again with their formal legalization of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in 2001.

Again in 2004, they showed up on the ethical radar, with the Groningen Protocol for involuntary euthanasia of infants and children.

The Groningen Protocol was not a government regulation or legislation, but rather a set of hospital guidelines for involuntary euthanasia of children up to age 12:

The Groningen Protocol, as the hospital’s guidelines came to be known, created a legal framework for permitting doctors to actively end the life of newborns deemed to be in similar pain from incurable disease or extreme deformities.

The guideline stated that euthanasia is acceptable when the child’s medical team and independent doctors agree the pain cannot be eased and there is no prospect for improvement, and when parents think it’s best.

Examples include extremely premature births, where children suffer brain damage from bleeding and convulsions; and diseases where a child could only survive on life support for the rest of its life, such as severe cases of spina bifida and epidermosis bullosa, a rare blistering illness.

The hospital revealed it had carried out four such mercy killings in 2003, and reported all cases to government prosecutors. There were no legal proceedings against the hospital or the doctors.
While some are shocked and outraged at this policy of medical termination of sick or deformed children (the story was widely ignored by the mainstream media, and received only limited attention on the Internet), it was merely a logical extension of a philosophy of medicine widely practiced and condoned in the Netherlands for many years, much as it was in Germany between world wars. It is a philosophy where the Useful is the Good, whose victims are the children whom Reason scorned.

Euthanasia is the quick fix to man’s ageless struggle with suffering and disease. The Hippocratic Oath — taken in widely varying forms by most physicians at graduation — was originally administered to a minority of physicians in ancient Greece, who swore to prescribe neither euthanasia nor abortion — both common recommendations by healers of the age. The rapid and widespread acceptance of euthanasia in pre-Nazi Germany occurred because it was eminently reasonable and rational. Beaten down by war, economic hardship, and limited resources, logic dictated that those who could not contribute to the betterment of society cease being a drain on its lifeblood. Long before its application to ethnic groups and enemies of the State, it was administered to those who made us most uncomfortable: the mentally ill, the deformed, the retarded, the social misfit. While invariably promoted as a merciful means of terminating suffering, the suffering relieved is far more that of the enabling society than of its victims. “Death with dignity” is the gleaming white shroud on the rotting corpse of societal fear, self-interest and ruthless self-preservation.

It is sobering and puzzling to ponder how the profession of medicine – whose core article of faith is healing and comfort of the sick – could be so effortlessly transformed into a calculating instrument of judgment and death. It is chilling to read the cold scientific language of Nazi medical experiments or Dutch studies on optimal techniques to minimize complications in euthanasia. Yet this devolution of medicine, with some contemplation, is not hard to discern. It is the natural gravity of man detached from higher principles, operating out of the best his reason alone has to offer, with its inevitable disastrous consequences. Contributing to this march toward depravity:

  • The power of detachment and intellectualism: Physicians by training and disposition are intellectualizers. Non-medical people observing surgery are invariably squeamish, personalizing the experience and often repulsed by the apparent trauma to the patient. Physicians overcome this natural response by detaching themselves from the personal, and transforming the experience into a study in technique, stepwise logical processes, and fascination with disease and anatomy. Indeed, it takes some effort to overcome this training to develop empathy and compassion. It is therefore a relatively small step with such training to turn even killing into another process to be mastered.

  • The dilution of personal responsibility: In Germany, the euthanasia of children was performed with an injection of Luminal, a barbiturate also used for seizures and sedation of the agitated. As a result, it was difficult to determine who was personally responsible for the deed: was it the nurse, who gave too much? The doctor, who ordered too large a dose? Was the patient overly sensitive to the drug? Was the child merely sedated, or in a terminal coma? Of course, all the participants knew what was going on, but responsibility was diluted, giving rationalization and justification full reign. The societal endorsement and widespread practice of euthanasia provided additional cover. When all are culpable, no one is culpable.

  • Compartmentalization: an individual involved in the de-Baathification of Iraq said the following:

    There is a duality in Baathists. You can find a Baathist who is a killer, but at home he’s completely normal. It’s like they split their day into two twelve-hour blocks. When people say about someone I know to be a Baathist criminal, ‘No, he’s a good neighbor!’, I believe him.
    Humans have the remarkable ability to utterly separate disparate parts of their lives, to accommodate cognitive dissonance. Indeed, there is probably no other way to maintain sanity in the face of enormous personal evil.

  • The banality of evil: Great evil springs in countless small steps from lesser evil. Jesus Christ was doubtless not the first innocent man Pilate condemned to death; soft porn came before child porn, snuff films, and rape videos; in the childhood of the serial killer lies cruelty to animals. Small evils harden the heart, making greater evil easier, more routine, less chilling. We marvel at the hideousness of the final act, but the descent to depravity is a gentle slope downwards.

  • The false optimism of expediency: Solve the problem today, deny any future consequences. We are nearsighted creatures in the extreme, seeing only the benefits of our current actions while dismissing the potential for unknown, disastrous ramifications. When Baby Knauer, an infant with blindness, mental retardation and physical deformities, became the first child euthanized in Germany, who could foresee the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau? We are blind to the horrendous consequences of our wrong decisions, but see infinite visions of hope for their benefits. As a child I watched television shows touting peaceful nuclear energy as the solution to all the world’s problems, little imagining the fears of the Cuban missile crisis, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the minutes before midnight of the Cold War, and the current ogre of nuclear terrorism.

    Reason of itself is morally neutral; it can kill children or discover cures for their suffering and disease. Reason tempered by humility, faith, and guidance by higher moral principles has enormous potential for good – and without such restraints, enormous potential for evil.

    The desire to end human suffering is morally good. Despite popular misconception, the Judeo-Christian tradition does not view suffering as something good, but rather something evil which exists, but which may be transformed and redeemed by God and grace, to ultimately produce a greater good. This is a difficult sell to a materialistic, secular world, which does not accept the transformational power of God or the existence of spiritual consequences, or principles higher than human reason.

    Yet the benefits of suffering, subtle though they may be, can be discerned in many instances even by the unskilled eye. What are the chances that Dutch doctors will find a cure for the late stage cancer or early childhood disease, when they now so quickly and “compassionately” dispense of their sufferers with a lethal injection? Who will teach us patience, compassion, unselfish love, endurance, tenderness, and tolerance, if not those who provide us with the opportunity through their suffering, or mental or physical disability? These are character traits not easily learned, though enormously beneficial to society as well as individuals. How will we learn them if we liquidate our teachers?

    Higher moral principles position roadblocks to our behavior, warning us that grave danger lies beyond. When in our hubris and unenlightened reason we crash through them, we do so at great peril, for we do not know what evil lies beyond. The Netherlands will not be another Nazi Germany, as frightening as the parallels may be. It will be different, but it will be evil in some unpredictable way, impossible to foresee when rationalism took the first step across that boundary to kill a patient in mercy.