Conversations with Fear

Shame: December 13, 2000

     "You know," I said to Fear the next time we got together, "our conversation about ignorance isn't really over because of the way we're taught."
     "What do you mean?" asked Fear.
     "We're taught in the negative," I replied.
     "That doesn't tell me much, now does it?"
     "It would if you'd let me finish!"
     "Sorry, I thought you were through."
     "An apology from FEAR? You're slipping!"
     "Oh shut up and continue."
     "It's a bit difficult to 'shut up  and continue,' don't you think?"
     "You know what I mean!" snapped Fear.
     "Yes," I conceded, after which I paused to gather my thoughts.
     "Well?" demanded Fear.
     "We're all born with scorecards," I began. "And from the time we're babies, everybody keeps our score—that is everyone except us, beginning with our parents, then our peers, our teachers, and finally society itself."
     "What do you mean, they 'keep score?'"
     "I mean they begin almost immediately telling us what  not to do. 'Don't do this; don't do that,' rather than helping us understand what is appropriate to do. In other words, they try to make a positive out of a negative, which keeps us in ignorance of what is appropriate.
     "Suppose, for example, you have a child—Heaven forbid, and you live by a busy street. What would you tell your child to keep it safe?"
     "You do belabor the obvious, don't you? I'd say 'Don't go in the street,' of course."
     "That's exactly what I mean by being taught in the negative!"
     "How so? What I mean is obvious; isn't it?"
     "What's the action word?"
     "Don't go."
     "No! The action word your child hears is  'go' and the place is  'street,' which is 180 degrees from what you mean."
     "Well, smarty boots, how else can I say it? snapped Fear with obvious irritation"
     "What you needed to have said is 'stay in the yard.' Then the action word your child hears is  'stay' and the place is  'yard.'"
     "I don't get it," said Fear with a puzzled look on its face.
     "You really don't get it, do you?"
     "Of course not! Would I say I didn't, if I did?"
     "I don't know what you'd say," I began sharply. "But then," I continued in a gentler tone, "you are Fear so the only way you know how to say it is based on what your are—Fear. Now I understand. You really can't say it any other way, can you?"
     "That seems patently obvious."
     "Yes it does, doesn't it," I said absently as I thought out loud. "You are Fear, after all," I continued, mumbling to myself, "and you have been competing with Love in teaching the world. Where Love's voice is soft and gentle, yours is shrill and harsh, so you have been drowning out the lessons of Love all these centuries. No wonder we are taught in the negative through the use of shame. That's the only way you know how to teach."
     "Shame, my disciple's name is 'Shame' with a capital 'S.' How many times do I have to tell you that."
     "As many as you like," I replied, now fully engaged in the conversation again, "because I no longer believe you. Oh, you had me going for a while. I admit it, but no more."
     "'No more!'" bellowed Fear. "No more! What do you mean, 'No more!'"
     "Just that; I see through you. You used these 'disciples' of yours to puff yourself up like a frightened cat—fuzzed-up tail and all. In reality, however, your so-called 'disciples' are just splinters of your personality that you project outward as though they're independent beings."
     "But you heard them speak!"
     "No, I heard you speak! You gave voice to them through the art of ventriloquism."
     "Whatever for would I do that?"
     "Don't feign innocence with me! You enjoy using your so-called 'desciples' to prod humanity into submission with your whims. Take, for example, your attempts to teach through shame."
     "Well, what other way is there? Instilling shame and its irretractible shadow, which you call guilt, is the best possible insurance I have to entice, addict, and hold the young people as subjects in my kingdom. Since you all end up 'dying,'" said Fear with a look of utter disgust, "I need to constantly renew my supply of subjects if I'm to out-compete Love for world rule."
     "You really think you can beat Love through the employment of shame? If so, you'll have to do it without 'guilt' as a ploy."
     "Without guilt?" gasped Fear "What are you talking about?"
     "I'm going to take guilt away from you."
     "You can't do that!"
     "Oh yes I can!"
     "How?" asked Fear in disbelief.
     "By calling things by their correct names. For example, embarrassment, shame, regret, anger, depression and fear are not components of guilt. Guilt comes about only when  I violated a principle or value  I hold dear. In that sense, guilt is positive in that it holds me to both the letter and the spirit of my principles and values."
     "But… But…," sputtered Fear.
     "But nothing," I said. "'Guilt,' according to counselor Peg Mayo, 'is a greatly admired self-torture' because it demonstrates to the world just how sensitive and responsible we are. By that I mean society tacitly approves of guilt as an instrument of self-punishment. In addition, guilt in the hands of the unscrupulous can be a great motivator for the skullduggery of someone else's 'shoulds' or 'oughts' by which they control you—you should do this, you ought to do that."
     "Give me some examples," said Fear.
     "Suppose I were to feel that I had not done enough to stop a pulp mill from polluting the river from which I and my fellow townspeople get our drinking water. Would I be feeling guilty? No, I would be feeling  inadequate to the task I see at hand. If this causes me to mop around in a dull, joyless manner, I could add  depression to inadequacy, but neither of these are guilt because  I did not violate a principle or value that  I hold dear. Someone else, over whom I have no control, violated the value I cherish, in this case, respect for the river and its clean water—but not I. Do you see what I mean?"
     "Sort of."
     "Well, let's try another couple of examples. One of the ways in which people use conditions attached to Love, is by assigning someone to make them happy. By…"
     "You're speaking in the abstract," butted in Fear. "Give me a concrete example."
     "Be patient. I will.
     "I know a mother who, through her behavior, taught her daughter that she was responsible for her mother's happiness. Obviously the daughter couldn't make her mother happy. Her mother had to decided to be happy by switching from her negative thinking to positive thinking, something only she could do. It was her choice, after all, whether she wanted to be happy or sad. The daughter was not responsible for her mother's choices or their resultant behavior.
     "Another way of looking at it is to consider regret. If I make a fool of myself in public or behave badly, I may, in hind sight, feel ashamed or embarrassed and regret my actions, but if the episode causes me to evaluate my behavior so I do not repeat my mistake, I will have learned a valuable lesson. This does not mean that, on reflection, I will necessarily be free of regret, but regret is  not guilt, although we often construe it as such."
     "Oh, all right, I concede," muttered Fear. "But I'm beginning to loath our conversations!"
     "I seems I've heard that before. Be that as it may, now that you no long have 'guilt' to couple with shame in your conspiracy to control Love, do you think shame by itself is enough of weapon with which to fight Love?"
     "You ask that after the way you were raised? Come on, think back."
     "These memories you're asking me to recall were once very painful."
     "I know," smiled Fear, "but it's the pain that brings people to my kingdom."
     "Yes. Remember the pain you felt when your father shamed you by blaming and ridiculing you in public, when he told you how bad and worthless you were, when he impressed upon you what a failure your were and always would be? Then he would go out of his way to tell you that he hoped you would have children to make you as miserable as you'd made him. You do remember how that hurt, don't you?"
     "Yes, I hated him for the way he abused me, but also in part because I could never do anything that pleased him, although I spent my entire childhood trying."
     "Why couldn't you please him?"
     "Because I never knew from one moment to the next what he wanted, and he often contradicted himself. The only thing that was predicable about him was his violent temper, which would erupt without warning. I was terrified of him from the time I was a baby.
     "I do remember, however, that I had to obey both him and my mother without question or suffer the consequences. The problem was he usually told me what  not to do—so did my school teachers, starting in the first grade. That's why I said we're taught in the negative.
     "In fact, we're taught with ignorance, not wisdom. I say this because I was almost always told what  not to do, which in no way helped me understand what to do, what was socially appropriate. So I'm still learning what is socially appropriate, which means I'm still making unnecessary social mistakes—and at my age! In this case, my ignorance is not a blessing; in fact, it used to be incredibly painful and embarrassing.
     "I'll give you an example of what I mean. I have a learning disability called dyslexia, about which little or nothing was known when I was in grade school or even in college. Because I had (and still have) trouble reading, spelling, with simple numbers, and with directions—I'm lost much of my life, I was branded as 'slow,' 'stupid,' and 'lazy,' especially by my father. But I even had trouble in graduate school, where two professors told me that I was 'too stupid' to be in college—and one of them was on my graduate committee.
     "This particular professor came up to me after my committee pass me for my Masters of Science Degree and said: 'You can be passed with one dissenting vote, and I'm that vote. I think your just too fucking stupid to be in college. So don't ever go on because you'll inevitably fail.'
     "Now, that kind of ignorance is teaching in the negative. That kind of ignorance hurts. In fact, I believed I was  stupid until my mid 40s, when I found out that I had dyslexia. What a relief that was!"
     "Ah Ha! 'Painful!' And did you hated because of that pain?"
     "You already know I did, but I hated more because of the injustice that was heaped upon me. Even if I was stupid, I couldn't help it. Besides, that's no reason to be cruel."
     "That's precisely why you were such a revered subject of mine."
     "I suppose I was for a while because I was clearly taught to feel shame whenever I made a mistake—any kind of mistake, which my father constant reminded me of. In my case, I was also taught that not knowing the answer to a question was not only unacceptable but also proved that I was hopelessly stupid and beyond all redemption, which caused me to liberally beat myself on a daily basis for being inadequate."
     "More pain," squealed Fear with uncontrollable delight.
     "It has taken me most of my life to overcome the notion of shame and thus see my mistakes for what they are—simply mistakes from which to learn more appropriate behavior. Besides, while we can't escape influences, we can choose what influences we will accept—and I reject yours."
     "Oh, you do, do you? Does that mean you're wholly without shame?" asked Fear, with a look of discomfort.
     "By and large, yes, because my mistakes are honest ones, without malice of intent. In addition to which, I now see shame for what it really is."
     "Oh you do, do you?" snickered Fear. "Well, by all means, enlighten me."
     "shame is our internalization of someone's projected accusation that we committed an unpardonable social blunder, about which we knew nothing."
     "Look!" cried Fear dancing a jig, "you left the captial 'S' off shame, and it's the first word in the sentence. You're not very good at English, are you?"
     "I'm glad you noticed. I used a lowercase 's' to make the point that shame is only a  figment of  your imagination, which we too blithely accept as a real part of ourselves. As I was about to say, the contention is either that we must have blundered on purpose or that we were simply too stupid or too clumsy to know better.
     "Suppose, for example, that you, at age four, trip on your grandmother's living-room carpet and, in falling, knock her favorite vase off the table, and it breaks. Whereupon your mother immediately says: 'Shame on you for breaking grandma's vase.' It that single sentence, you mother has not only blamed you for breaking the vase, as it you could have helped it, but also told you that the vase was more important than you are. You, in your turn, take the blame and internalize it by translating it into humiliation—as though there really  is something wrong with you, which makes you of  lesser value than the vase.
     "Why did your mother shame you through blame? Possible because she felt your behavior reflected on her as a mother, or because that is the behavior she learned as a child your age, or because she is competing with her siblings and their children through you and thus wants you to be perfect in everyone's eyes so she can bask in reflected glory. Regardless of the reason, our parents—our bosses, as it were—are telling us through shame and blame who we are by attempting to mirror us to ourselves through their lenses. Therefore, that fact that you are just a four-year-old child who tripped and fell is entirely beside the point.
     "Now, if your grandmother is a psychologically mature adult, she will call you over and say: 'Don't worry about the vase. I know you didn't mean to knock it over. Besides, you're far more important to me than that old vase ever was.' These words of comfort would go a long way to help shape your perspective on life. Alas, there are relatively few psychologically mature adults in the world—thanks to the negative way in which we're taught.
     "Therefore, we, in our childhood innocence, unquestioningly accepted what we're told because an authority figure told us, with a full measure of authority, that we must accept 'the truth' about ourselves from one who knows. Shame, however, is not an event, no matter how vehemently blame is cast; rather, it is an interpretation of an event—always someone else's negative interpretation. Shame says there  is something wrong with me, that  I'm a mistake, that  I'm no good, that  I'm a consummate failure, and that  I ought to cringe inside because of my imperfection. Shame is total rejection of myself as a human being of any value. It's soul murder through which we become the 'living dead.'
     "Because we feel fatally flawed, we create a false self in order to survive, a facade behind which we hide who we think we really are. Then, we go though life protecting our facade (our secret, as it were) lest someone see us as we think we really are—a wretched, unlovable, worthless human being; a stinking, befouled piece of human shit. That's why we incur what we interpret to be a sense of guilt whenever we attempt to stand up for ourselves, but it's really a feeling of unworthiness.
     "Moreover, shame is accompanied by loneliness and pain, which we try to numb with our compulsive-addictive lifestyles. We stay so busy and distracted that we don't have time to feel the rage at being severely broken and deeply wounded because of the way our parents treated us. Of course, that's the way you taught their parents to treat them, and, through them, us too. For us to survive as children, therefore, you, Fear, teach us to idealize the very people who abuse us, which means that we will surely pass the abuse on to our children, and, through them, to their children, generation after generation.
     "Have I left out anything of import?"
     "No…, you've encapsulated it pretty well."
     "You said that with some hesitation. If I have left anything out, you can read John Bradshaw's 1988 book on  The Family. A Revolutionary Way of Self-Discover. Come to think of it, however, you don't need to read Bradshaw's book because you are the original author of shame.
     "You look somewhat distressed. Does my notion of shame bother you?
     "You're damn right it bothers me!" shouted Fear. "How did you get to where you are, anyway?"
     "By being uncomfortable most of my life, I suppose. We grow and change the most when we are out of our comfort zone. The result of being out of our comfort zone, even a little, is to gain a measure of freedom by expanding our comfort zone, by learning that we can survive our discomfort and thereby make the unknown, the cause of our discomfort, a known with which we can cope.
     "To grow and change, however, we must begin to view struggle as an ally of the heart, as part of a processes to embrace even as we embrace life itself, for struggle is but an aspect of life and the freedom to live it. An anonymous author wrote: 'The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn and feel and change and grow and love and live. He's forfeited his freedom. Only the person who risks is truly free.'
     "The greatest value of inner struggle is to open ourselves to the understanding and the experiences of life, which, if we choose, translate into compassion for those who struggled as we do. Einstein said that only 'by widening our circle of compassion' will we find our way out of the violence, mistrust, and exploitation that today formulates the world's curriculum, which, of course, you wrote.
     "Struggle is a tool of transformation when it's embraced as a positive lesson. We are like children climbing the endless stairs of self-mastery, one step at a time. Our most intense struggles come when we're trying to climb up to the next higher step; this is our crisis or circumstance. When we finally arrive on the next step, we have a level area on which to rest awhile and to travel at an easier pace; this is our time to assimilate the experience of our struggle and to distill it to wisdom; this is our time to gather our strength and our courage to climb up the next step, identified by our next crisis."
     "If all people were like you, who would listen to me?"
     "I can see you problem," I said with mock sympathy. "What do you want me to do about it?"
     "I'd like you to keep your blasted insights to yourself! That's what I'd like."
     "I thought you were so sure of yourself," I mused.
     "I am," bellowed Fear, "but I find your behavior to be unnerving nonetheless."
     "Because Love has gotten to you—Love and faith, and you know how I hate them!"
     "As I said, I see you're problem."
     "Stop saying that!"
     "Why should I? Give me one good reason to stop. After all, you mock the whole world, including the Eternal Mystery and Love."
     "And what if I do? If you felt shame and guilt—or whatever you call it—like you should, you wouldn't dare treat me this way. If you felt them, really felt them like most people do, you'd be emotionally raw inside and riddled with pain."
     "Why is that so important to you?"
     "Because it keeps people off balance, which maintains the irrationality of their logic. It keeps them in a knee-jerk reactive mode to circumstances, which in turn keeps me in control because I can manipulate their minds to see any circumstances in a way that is to my advantage—that is, as long as I can shroud their minds to the presence of Love and peace."
     "And," I added, "you can be smuggled across any border by any one whose thinking is based on your 'irrational logic.'"
     "I resent that!" roared Fear. "I don't need to be smuggled anywhere!"
     "Oh but you do, or you would get nowhere. You are smuggled because the people either don't see you or because they are filled with hate and violence and have to sneak and connive to spread them. Love and peace, on the other hand are carried carefully and consciously across all borders; in fact, Love and peace know no borders."
     "I hate you! I hate talking to you!"
     "Well, that's your choice," I said. "But remember, you gave me your word to finish our conversations once they began."
     "When will they be over," whined Fear.
     "When I run out of questions, I guess."
     "I hope that's soon!"
     "Don't hold your breath because I already have another one. Why are we taught in the negative?"
     "Well, if you must know, that's how I confuse the world," answered Fear in a somewhat confessional tone of voice. "By teaching you in the negative, I deftly prevent you from knowing what you want—only what you don't want. Or should I say, I keep you stuck in a symptomatic life of knee-jerk reactions to circumstances, rather than allowing you to venture into a causal life of vision and possibilities."
     "How," might I ask, "does that work?"
     "Simple," replied Fear with obvious satisfaction and eager to explain. "If you keep focused on what you  don't want, you never spend time trying to figure out what you  do want. When you people are asked what you want, therefore, most of you reply with what you don't want. In other words, you try to move away from a negative, such as psychological pain, which, of course, you can't do. You can only move toward a positive, such as healing from the pain by accepting it and moving through it to the other side, but to do so, you must experience the pain. And that's what you're loath to do.
     "For example, if I asked you what you wanted to eat and you answered me by saying, 'I don't want ice cream,' I wouldn't know what you wanted, would I? In fact you wouldn't know either because you're focused on the wrong thing—what you don't want. It's that simple. To know what you want, you have to think about what you want; you've got to ask yourself what you want and then listen to the answer, but that takes positive thinking and requires the tutelage of Love.
     "Damn it! I see that smile on your face. You're just baiting me, aren't you?" queried Fear. "I've watched you lead communities through visioning processes. You know exactly what I'm talking about, don't you?"
     "Yes, I know. I just wanted to hear you explain it. But you left out one minor detail."
     "And what's that?"
     "Intimidation, with which you inevitably foster a 'disaster mentality.' I've watched how you always manage to include some intimidating possibility into your negative teachings, while conveniently omitting the fact that  possibility and  probability are two very different things. That's why so many people go through life with chronic anxiety; you've taught them to think of possibility and probability as one and the same. When intimidation—a negative world view based on confusing possibility with probability and the disaster mentality that results—is accepted as truth, the only place such thinking can lead is right to your slimy doorstep, which makes me think that insurance companies have been trained by you."
     "Where do you get the audacity to say that?" came Fear's defiant challenge.
     "Well, think about it. Insurance companies are betting nothing bad is going to happen to me, which means that I must bet against myself and assume that something bad will. They accomplish their commercial intimidation by calculating their profits based on probabilities, but sell their insurance based on possibilities. That's why I purchase insurance, because I'm taught, through your curriculum of ever-impending disaster and intimidation, to bet against myself based on possibilities, not probabilities. If that isn't being taught in the negative, I don't know what is."
     "Wait a minute! You didn't give me a chance to respond," sniveled Fear.
     "Can you refute what I just said?"
     "Then what response is there? None!"

© chris maser 2000. All rights reserved.

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