My Father, Guilt and Shame

My father was the most amiable of men. I used to laugh at him in conversation with guests. He’d say to one uncle, "Yes, you’re right." A moment later, he would say to another, of a quite contrary opinion, "I can’t disagree with that." If I later challenged him on how he could agree with both of two opposed opinions, he say, "That’s a good point, Son."

I never fought with my father and rarely saw him angry. Well, once a year, when he would have to sink the pipe of our water well deeper into the ground. He’d get awfully mad at that pipe, and I’d learn all sorts of new vocabulary. Our mother was the disciplinarian. She was around more frequently, and I can easily remember her anger. It was strong but quickly spent, like a Kansas twister.

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I am ashamed to relate the only time that my Father was angry with me, and I wouldn’t if the confluence of these scriptures and Fathers Day allowed a pass. My point is going to be that shame is a bad but that guilt is for the good.

It happened one summer, in my early teens. I couldn’t have been very old, because I began working at my father’s grocery store when I was fourteen, and, that summer day, I was still at home. My working Mom had insisted that someone my age, not working, should do more to help around the house. So I was vacuuming the family room one morning, when my sister Penny entered the room, furious that I had awakened her.

When Penny was mad, it was best to flee, so I turned off the vacuum, went to the kitchen and started washing dishes, but she berated me again, because I was now in the way of her breakfast. I again retreated, this time to clean the bathroom where, not too long after, she entered, furious that I was once again in her way. She screamed at me a third time, and, this time, I slapped her with the back of my hand. She immediately ran to telephone our parents at the grocery store.

That my father should come home in the middle of the morning was not unusual. As the store’s manager, he was always going to the bank or porting home ginger ale if we were sick. Tears from my sister didn’t seem much of a reason to see him so quickly out front.

He didn’t slam the door of the car, though he shoved it shut as though its very existence was in his way. I remember his stride across the front lawn. The purposefulness expressed by his legs alarmed me. I was cleaning in the bathroom when he found me.

"Son, did you hit your sister?"

"Yeah, Dad, because all I was trying to do was clean, and she kept following me around, screaming at me."

"Terry, you never, ever, hit a girl for any reason."

"Dad, she started it. She was screaming."

"Son, you don’t understand, and you’ve got to understand or we’re not leaving here. You never, ever, hit a woman for any reason. Never again in life, for any reason. Do you understand me, Son? Never again."

I understood his red face. I understood that he angrier than had ever seen him. In fact, a few swear words from him would have been welcome release from his intensity. I understood that I was in the wrong. He made me say aloud, "I will never touch a woman in anger, ever again."

"Never."

"Never."

I can’t help but to think that on that summer morning, I felt some of the shame and guilt that King David experienced when the prophet Nathan confronted him with the murder of Uriah. David’s shame would have been of limited value. It’s a negative emotion felt by us. It only denigrates the spirit and inhibits effective response. Shame is the work of the evil one. No parent should shame a child.

Guilt, on the other hand, is altogether different. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. Shame is a negative emotion; guilt is an apt awareness, a state of knowledge. One could call the guilt, which only a human being can perceive, between what is and what ought to be. Hopefully, David’s shame passed, but not the repugnance toward his own evil that only his saving guilt could reveal to him.

Some would suggest that guilt is a negative thing, and that those who raise its awareness within us should be avoided at all cost. They couldn’t be more wrong. Of course there is good reason to avoid those who would make us feel guilty for the wrong reasons, but, when the cause is just, the only way for a human being to move beyond what is wrong, to move on to something so much the better, is the awareness that we call guilt. Guilt may not feel good, but lots of things necessary to human life don’t. One who would spare a child the experience of guilt truncates the ability to transform, to grow.

Ironically, as the gospel shows, guilt is more often felt by the good than by the wicked. The good feel guilty because God has drawn close, and, in divine light, they see the gap between what is and what ought to be. They see a brighter future beckoning. The woman who knew herself a sinner could fall at the feet of Jesus and wash them with her tears. Simon the Pharisee was still caught in a web of self-promotion, self-justification.

I don’t recall ever hitting anyone again in anger. My shame returns in relating the lesson my father taught me, but, like all emotions, it will pass. The guilt is also gone, because it’s long ago done its work.

2 Samuel 12: 7-10, 13 Galatians 2: 16, 19-21 Luke 7: 36-8:3

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