|William Story's last sculpture, this famous and evocative|
memorial to his wife. He joined her in death the following year.
What he could do was hold his sleeping wife and contemplate our years together. He was moved to tears by the ways he has hurt and disappointed her.
He tried to remember the good things, but that provided little comfort. The Bear owed her those things. What was on the other side of the scale was just... wrong. Somehow, no matter how he tried to work it out, the scales would not balance.
Then, he thought something else, being a Bear, whose thoughts run surprisingly deep behind their small eyes.
The Use and Abuse of Shame
He realized the source of his unhappiness was mixed. It was not pure sorrow over wrongs, but there was shame, too. True remorse looks to the person wronged. Shame looks inward, toward ourselves. That can sometimes be a good thing. It is a good thing mainly when it orients us to briefly catalogue our sins in order to drag them into the light of grace.
However, it must not be confused with contrition.
"For the sorrow that is according to God worketh penance, steadfast unto salvation; but the sorrow of the world worketh death." 2 Corinthians 7:10.
Shame has a practical social use, but its benefits are limited, especially today. It is, after all, just a psychological reaction of the ego that may or may not be related to sin. Worse, shame has been unhooked from morality and attached to the petty taboos of our age. Its value to society is less than it used to be because the things that are considered shameful are all changed.
"Fair is foul and foul is fair," quoth the witches of MacBeth.
The Bear thinks even the best of us must take care not to become "shameless" in certain ways.
Passionate Intensity: the Sole Remaining Virtue of Our Culture
In his famous poem "The Second Coming," Yeats wrote: "The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity." The Bear reads tweets, FaceBook posts and blogs and must say that no longer is it just the worst who are full of passionate intensity. Everyone is. Passionate intensity is the sole remaining virtue of our culture, it seems. The Bear worries that we are rushing into an age of fanaticism.
It is as if everyone has realized that one must become a fanatic to beat fanatics, or even be heard over their shouting. Not only that, we can't afford to be seen to flinch, to have a moment of doubt. If you don't have all the answers, you're not even in the conversation.
Slouching Toward Contrition
Then the Bear had another thought. How often has he felt that same awful feeling, only about having hurt his Savior? Not often enough.
It is good to feel bad about behaving badly toward your spouse. It is probably only natural if there remains any love in our hearts. However, when we go to confession, how often is it more about the shame we feel, the disappointment that comes from not living up to the exaggerated high opinion we hold about ourselves?
How often do we think of Jesus and feel hot tears, not because of what disappointing creatures we are, but because Jesus loves us and we are supposed to love Him, and, in some way that may be hard to understand, we truly do hurt God?
Might we use the opportunity of natural regret to redirect that awful feeling toward our loving Savior in true contrition?
Opening Our Hands to Receive Grace
With grace. Always and only with grace. All bitterness, all contention and selfishness, and certainly every grudge, no matter how high-minded, is incompatible with grace. And so is shame, because shame is ultimately just a feeling: pride's ironic shadow.
It is easy to recognize the bad things we must let go of in order to receive grace. It is often the things that seem good to us that that are barriers to grace. Anything we will not release, however, keeps us from facing God with open hands.
We never know what offer of grace may be our last. We must take them seriously.
We learn to love through creatures, such as our family members. That is wonderful and even holy. We can even be led through selfish shame to true remorse, and to the other side of the coin, forgiveness. These are marvelous things.
But, we should not love any creature more than God. When we cannot sleep for love, perhaps God is inviting us to open our hearts even wider for Him.