Shame

1 Our pride humiliates us

Some people’s pride is good for nothing but to find the best way to make fools of them. I am often put to shame, but I’m not much chastened. And though my pride humiliates me time and again, it never learns humility.

The furthest point of pride comes close to self-contempt, where pride judges that its possessor falls short of its own high standard.

How ludicrous I make myself by trying so hard not to seem so. If you don’t want to look ridiculous, learn to be laughed at with a good grace.

How much of our dignity we forfeit by striving so clamorously to assert it. ‘Honour,’ Aristotle said, ‘does not consist in possessing a good name, but in deserving it,’ and when we press our claims to it, we show that we don’t deserve it. Dignity is for the most part just the solemn face which plodding self-importance presents to the world. It is the swollen gravity of a ponderous and inert body.

Some people are so anxious to fill embarrassing silences, that they keep embarrassing themselves by jabbering nonsense.

Pride, like a madcap billionaire, would be insolvent in a few days, if he didn’t appoint discretion to be his steward. He is a potent monarch but a bumbling captain, who must hand on the command of his feuds to temperance and astuteness.

Some people are so uncomfortably proud that they can’t feel at ease with you, till they’ve put themselves to shame in front of you, and have no more to lose.

By endeavouring to redress an immaterial or fancied slight, some people heap a pile of real ignominy on their heads. How egregiously they dishonour themselves, to avoid incurring the dishonour which they scarcely seem to feel.

Some people smart at the most venial affront, yet fail to spot any but the grossest libel. They fear all the time that they are being defamed, yet they fail to scent real disrespect. Having painlessly digested humiliations that should poison them, their gorge rises at the most unoffending jibe. They bleed at the least snub, but sturdily brazen out the most cutting discredit.

A tactless mouth may cause more hurt than a malicious one.

If I had more pride, I might not bristle at such small slurs.

2 Mad consistency

Life, which is so humdrum, from time to time turns shabbily operatic, and tempts me to improvise a bogus role, which my pride then forbids me to give up. I hope to prove that I am not playing a part by continuing to play it in the same vein. What laughable airs I’m forced to put on, in order to appear as if I were behaving naturally.

Some people are so proud that they have to act as if they were vexed by their own successes in order to scarf their ebullience. Others try to veil their embarrassment by pretending to be elated. They need to work up their affectations, since they blush to seem so affected.

Some proud people would have you believe that they were all the time purposing to do the very thing that exigencies have forced them to do, or else that they are behaving on impulse when they have in fact computed minutely how their acts will be regarded by the world. They become the captives of chance, in order to prove that they are free. They make fools of themselves by pretending that they don’t mind what others think of them.

Some people acknowledge their blunders in order to show that they don’t mean a thing to them, or else they persevere in them for the same reason. They put themselves to shame by persisting in the pranks and antics that have shamed them, in order to prove that they have not. They hope to hide that they have gone wrong by continuing to go wrong in the same way. So they exacerbate small indiscretions into grand calamities. They fancy that if they behave with unswerving absurdity, no one will notice how absurdly they are behaving.

3 Modesty

We are as self-effacing as we have to be, but we are as pretentious as we can get away with. Most of us pretend to be meek from prudence and good policy, but some do so out of a circuitous pride. We may speak bashfully to savour our strength in overmastering or underestimating ourselves. We take pleasure in our icy strictness when we judge our efforts so astringently. Some people use deference as Socrates used self-derision, to lure their dupes into a trap that will lay bare their fatuity more starkly. And some fools seem self-abasing, since they lack the wit to be anything but foolish. Some proud people put on an ostentatious modesty, to show that they are superior to what they are prized for, and to make clear how cheap they count most praise. They decline panegyrics, since they know how valueless they are. They class their worth so far above most people’s, that they feel no call to boast to them. They parry some compliments, since they feel that they fail to do full justice to their vast talents. Shrewd climbers speak reticently of the success that they have gained, to screen how insistently they sought it.

We are ashamed to expose our pride, but we are proud to flaunt our meekness. Watch out that you don’t overplay your lowliness, lest others spot how highly you rate yourself. Those who are genuinely modest are chary of advertising their modesty, since they have no wish to draw attention to it. But the falsely demure turn down praise before it has even been proffered to them. The winding trail of their humility leads straight to their pride. ‘All censure of a man’s self is oblique praise,’ as Johnson wrote.

If you can’t flatter yourself that the world appreciates you, you can at least flatter yourself that it undervalues you.

Even unfeignedly diffident people take themselves more seriously than you could guess. ‘The most humble,’ Ebner-Eschenbach wrote, ‘think better of themselves than their best friends think of them.’ Some people have to overdo their humility, since they overrate their success. The vastness of their accomplishments shocks them into modesty.

All of us are modest, since none of us is quite so mad as to let slip how well we think of our own merits, because we know that the world is too foolish to share our view. I take care not to boast to those who might not agree with me, or to run down my merits to those who might. ‘We find it easy to reprimand ourselves on one condition,’ says Ebner-Eschenbach, ‘so long as no one else concurs with us.’

Many people feel that they have no need to boast, but they think that others still need to hear of their phenomenal successes.

Some people will go to a world of trouble to prove to others that they have nothing to prove.

Pride prods some people to flaunt themselves, and some, like T. E. Lawrence, to bury themselves. Some who lust to be noticed still long to be anonymous, ‘the world forgetting, by the world forgot,’ as Pope phrased it. Infected with a fever for renown, they find relief in dreams of obscurity. Though they may be glad to stay in the shade, they still begrudge others when they shine. Hermits dream of adoring crowds who wait at the mouth of their cave to hear the world-redeeming wisdom which they’ve gleaned in their retreat.

Some people are so proud that they refuse to laugh at their own foibles. Others are so sure of themselves that they are always game to. Pity those who have no one to contest their compulsory self-deprecation.

I know my place so well, that I am the hub of the world, that I feel that others ought to know theirs too, that they are not. So how is their sight so clouded, when I can see so clearly?

Season your boasts with a spoonful of self-deprecation, and most people will swallow them whole.

How obscenely our natural self-belief shows through our skimpy and synthetic modesty.

I presume that my meekness will make people see how much they have underestimated me, but unfortunately I overestimate how insightful they are.

I think it right that others ought to be modest, but that they only fake it, whereas I am sincerely modest, but ought not be. We don’t believe what our modesty makes us say, and that is exactly why we do believe that we are modest. I hope that people will discern that I am unreservedly but mistakenly meek. I want them to doubt what my forced humility feigns to believe, and yet still see that I am humble at heart. I am convinced by my own self-effacement, but I trust that others won’t be. I hope that this is the one pose of mine that they will have the wit to see through. I count on them to read between the lines of my lowliness, and I’m chagrined when they take it literally. ‘He who speaks humbly of himself,’ wrote Multatuli, ‘grows angry if you believe him and furious if you pass on what he says.’

By observing people who do modest jobs with an unselfconscious grace we can learn to bear our own dull lot.

4 Humility

A creature that was genuinely self-effacing would straightway cease to exist. How could it dare to claim for its own use a mere puff of air to breathe? Even if my pride failed to trounce my humility in a direct assault, my greed would still overrun it in its inexorable march.

I trust that unimportant people will be meek, but I overrate their meekness, as they overrate their importance. I think too well of them when I judge them to be modest, and they think so well of themselves that they are not.

We deem that obscure people ought to be meek, seeing that they are so obscure. And we deem that the great ought to be meek, seeing that they are so great. We think that the first have nothing to boast of and that the second should have no need to boast. But when did that ever stop anyone?

Humility is one of pride’s most grotesque perversions. It is conceit flattering itself that it can mortify itself. Would-be saints, like Tolstoy or Weil, who are racked by their inordinate pridefulness, trust that they can harrow their hearts into self-abasement.

I don’t doubt that there must be a horde of humble people, since I know that I at least am one.

Nothing beats the presumption of the lowly soul which can conceive of nothing more exalted and commendable than a lowly soul.

How do humble people dare to assert that humility is a duty, and expect that all the rest of us emulate their own laudable lowliness? They presume that the great must be as meek as they are. ‘One law for the lion and ox is oppression,’ as Blake wrote. Is it not more desirable to do great things and not be modest than to be modest and lose the power to do great things? ‘Humility to genius,’ Shenstone wrote, ‘is as an extinguisher to a candle.’

The meek who are to inherit the earth should doubtless be the sinless beasts of the field, and not the unrivalled but perverted predator mankind. But we will have wiped them out before they get the chance to claim their bequest.

5 Self-doubt

‘No cause,’ Johnson said, ‘more frequently produces bashfulness than too high an opinion of our own importance.’ Some people’s very self-conceit leads them to put on an unneeded diffidence. They make too much of the difficulties of doing a thing, since they make too much of its size and significance, and they make too much of its size and significance, since they make too much of their own.

Those who look dubiously at everything else still trust steadfastly in their own integrity. And those who suspect all appearances still have faith in their own feigning. My overall scepticism steels my confidence in myself. But even those who never have a doubt of their worth still need to give new proof of it each day.

Most of us mistrust completely anyone who would tempt us to mistrust ourselves a touch.

Some people who seem inordinately proud are just excessively shy. But most of those who seem uncommonly shy still nestle an overgrown pride in their breast. They curl up into shyness, not because they lack faith in their own flair, but because they don’t trust the world to grasp how remarkable they are. They may seem to be uncertain of their own talents, but they in fact suspect that the world is too stupid to give them their due. When they drop their guard, they don’t let show their submerged diffidence, but lay bare their buoyant vainglory. Give them the occasion, and their conceit will more than rise to it, and any occasion will do.

I shun those who seem stricken with self-doubt, for fear that it may be catching, though I’ve not shown any symptoms of it myself. Even in others we find self-flattery more attractive than self-knowledge.

6 Shame

Shame is a competitive imaginist, which vies with its rivals to realize some socially sanctioned pattern of perfection.

Nothing but love or self-love is strong enough to prevail against shame.

Any slander can be borne with, save one that all know to be true.

Your hearers will be prepared to wink at most of your faux pas, so long as you don’t blurt out the truth, since this would spatter them with as much mud as it does you.

Who would not prefer to shoulder a world of shames than grant that they have called them down on their own heads? Pride, having pricked me to act inexcusably, then robs me of all my excuses.

Shame can inhibit you or incite you. It may make you brazenly own up to your faults, or else brazenly deny them. It tells you to conform, and it tempts you to rebel. It varies with all the various mores that it hedges. It shifts in what it prohibits or protects. It may make you mild or make you a monster. It might tell you to slit your own wrists or to assassinate an enemy. It may stay you from doing wrong, but it will bind you to requite small insults by the most unjust means.

Guilt torments, but shame prevents. Shame is shallower than guilt, and so sticks faster in us. ‘It is easier to cope with a bad conscience than a bad reputation,’ as Nietzsche points out.

Guilt may sting you, but it won’t stop you.

Shame may warn you not to do real harm, but embarrassment will hold you back from doing positive good.

Shame accomplishes more than sympathy. I show solicitude for the distress of others, since I would feel embarrassed not to. A tramp who is not shameless enough to shame us into charity will soon starve. I don’t forgive beggars for what they take from me, be it my small change or my oversized self-respect. As Nietzsche wrote, ‘it annoys one to give to them, and it annoys one not to give to them.’

Keep your secrets sealed away, and you will grow more imprisoned by them. Yet they may yield up to you the key to unlock the chambers of your heart. Secrets ferment your self-knowledge in the dark.

My shame flatters me. I glory in the gash that it makes in my pride.

7 Embarrassment

Embarrassment may spread like a blush over a whole life.

Egoism embarrasses some and emboldens others.

I’m mortified by the least frailties that should in no way embarrass me, and I’m far less embarrassed by more grievous ones that should. The smallest misstep might abash us, yet so few things shame us.

Bashfulness is shame’s tender infancy, in which you wince at each slight graze to your social self, before you have had time to grow the tough hide of your self-assurance.

Embarrassment is to shame what vanity is to pride. They are shallow lakes, more readily stirred up than the deep sea.