Shame the devil

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PERSPECTIVE - PAUL GREEN­BERG

Shame is an emo­tion that may be most pow­er­ful in the younger years of our sin­ful species, re­quir­ing peers to look on our per­for­mance with ei­ther envy or a shared sense of sat­is­fac­tion.

But as that au­di­ence thins out as more and more con­tem­po­raries shake off this mor­tal coil, the ac­tor is left per­form­ing his life’s lit­tle drama be­fore fewer spec­ta­tors till he re­al­izes he’ll soon be star­ring in a show for an ever emp­tier house.

Hap­pily, this whole grand show of mine is or­ches­trated by the most com­pe­tent of ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers, im­pre­sar­ios and gate­keep­ers—the sec­ond Mrs. Green­berg, mis­tress of the house­hold. Which ex­plains why the ac­tor has the leisure to in­dulge in vivid mem­o­ries of the past.

There was a time when he might have rel­ished the ironies in­her­ent in what the Ger­mans call schaden­freude, or sat­is­fac­tion in the fall of oth­ers. But now it seems an irony empty of con­tent, for only a se­lect few old friends re­main to share it with.

All that may ex­plain why the dou­bleedged sen­sa­tion of shame seemed more pow­er­ful in his youth than it does now, which has freed him of shame. For how can any­one who re­al­izes his ut­ter de­pen­dence on oth­ers feel the pride that goeth be­fore the in­evitable fall? Or any in­grat­i­tude to­ward those who see to his every ba­sic need?

The con­flu­ence of hum­bling trends in the di­min­ish­ing num­ber of years left leads him to think on what a great teacher shame has been to him.

There was the time, at a fam­ily wed­ding in Chicago, when he played the role of ring­bearer—top hat, tails and all. He can still see his grand­fa­ther sit­ting in a chair, for his danc­ing days were then passed, and do­ing a seated kazatske, ex­tend­ing his arms for the ring­bearer to do that vig­or­ous folk dance with him. Per­haps stunned by the honor, or maybe just be­set by any 5-year-old’s stage fright, the boy held back. At which mem­bers of the wed­ding party cried out, “What’s the mat­ter? Don’t you want to dance with za­yde?” Za­yde is Yid­dish for grandpa. The boy adored the old man who would hold his hand and take him safely across a busy street for an ice cream cone. (The boy al­ways chose choco­late). There wasn’t any­thing he wouldn’t do at his grand­fa­ther’s re­quest. He was em­bar­rassed and ashamed to have his love for the old man ques­tioned, and re­solved never to let it hap­pen again..

There was the time years later when a veteran of­fi­cer was de­liv­er­ing a sear­ing cri­tique of his per­for­mance as pretend bat­tery com­man­der at sum­mer camp when he for­got to take his ra­dio along on a fire mis­sion and wound up sep­a­rated from his unit with no way to com­mu­ni­cate. Em­bar­rass­ing. And shame­ful.

There was one of many times when, as one of the few Jewish kids in el­e­men­tary school, he was called on to tell the story of Noah and the Ark be­cause, be­ing one of the Peo­ple of the Book, he was sup­posed to know all about such things. Other kids knew their Bi­ble, too, but it was as­sumed he would have the in­side dope. Lit­tle did they know.

He en­joyed be­ing some­thing of a cu­rios­ity. Rank has its priv­i­leges, but also its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. He would be asked if You Peo­ple still prac­ticed an­i­mal sac­ri­fice. He al­ways felt a lit­tle priv­i­leged at such times, and this time he must have been more than a lit­tle ner­vous, too. Be­cause just as Noah was lead­ing the an­i­mals into the Ark two by two as the Flood came on, he

re­al­ized he was wet­ting his pants. And there was no way to hide it, cer­tainly not from the kind teacher who hus­tled him off to the cloak room where she kept a store of dry clothes for just such oc­ca­sions. Em­bar­rass­ing. And shame­ful.

There was the time in sec­ond grade when, not re­al­iz­ing the bell he’d heard didn’t mean the end of the school day but only lunch time, he’d set out gamely to catch the trol­ley home. A teacher, re­al­iz­ing his mis­take, came run­ning af­ter him. It may have been only a short dis­tance for her, but to him it seemed an aw­fully long time as he trudged his way to the trol­ley stop won­der­ing why all the other kids were stay­ing in school. When she caught up with him, took his hand, and turned him around, he was grate­ful. And em­bar­rassed. And ashamed.

Shame has its uses in adult so­ci­ety too, for it prompts most of us to stay in line. As for the ex­cep­tional and re­peated mis­cre­ants in so­ci­ety, they’re reg­u­larly called shame­less. Which is def­i­nitely not a com­pli­ment.

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