Shame by Julia Marks

My favorite movie of all time is The Nun’s Story, a thinly veiled autobiography of a woman who did her best at being a nun during World War II.

She is the daughter of a brilliant doctor, was raised at his knee, and grew up learning all about medicine.  Her passion was for tropical medicine.

Eventually, she is allowed to go to tropical medicine nursing school in order to fulfill her dream of being an African missionary.

While there, she is under a Mother Superior with very unusual ideas of her own.  There will only be room for four nuns to be sent to the Congo.  The Nun (the heroine) is sure to be one of them.  The Mother Superior, who feels deeply for all her nuns (kind of), pities one of them who is struggling through the course.  If she passes, it will be by a very thin margin.  The Mother Superior asks The Nun to cheat on her exams, fail on purpose, in order to make a place for The Failing Nun.

It will be an act of humility.  Of sacrifice.  Of martyrdom.

The Nun struggles with this request, which, coming from a Mother Superior, is really a demand.

And she struggles.  And she struggles.

And she tries to fail.  She stands before her examiners and begins to give wrong answers.

But she can’t do it.

She passes.  With flying colors.

The Failing Nun fails.

And so, now graduated from nursing school at last, The Nun goes to receive her assignment.  When does the boat leave, exactly?  What should I bring to the Congo?

You are going to the Netherlands (or some such country).  You will be serving at a hospital for the mentally insane.  The seriously mentally insane.

If you only watch the movie, her sense that she is being sent there instead of the Congo as a punishment for not failing her exams is never resolved.  However, in the book, her Mother Superior at the hospital reassures her that her conscription was nothing but the expression of a desperate need for psychiatric nurses.  And The Nun was the only available nurse with psychiatric qualifications.  So they grabbed her up.

One of her assignments is to watch over the “bathing” room.  There, dozens of mad women are locked into these big wooden tubs of hot water for eight hours at a time.  It’s supposed to soothe them.  Instead, they spend their days kicking the tops of the tubs with their feet, creating a roar of pounding.  To watch over these women, the nun gets to sit in the back of the room, back erect, for the length of her shift.  Not speaking with anyone.  Not working on anything.  Just watching her charges.  And listening to the drumming.

This image, of The Nun sitting rigid in her chair in the midst of chaos, has always been a favorite of mine.

When I have found myself standing in the midst of lunacy, real lunacy, and I wonder, What am I doing here? I remember The Nun.  I remember that we don’t have to be where we want to be.  And that sometimes our assignment is to stand tall and just listen.

It’s not my lunacy, after all.  I’m not responsible for it.  Or for solving it.  I’m just there.

One definition for shame is: the ability to feel guilt, regret, or embarrassment.

In today’s word, shame is a very, very bad thing.  It’s bad to feel it.  It’s bad to make another person feel it.

It’s just bad.

And if we find ourselves feeling shame, then it just means we are weak.

One thing that is absolutely fascinating me these days is the phrase slut shaming.  Apparently, it’s Not OK to make a derogatory comment about a girl or woman who dresses or acts sexually provocatively.  Like a slut, to mirror the amazing phrase.   Don’t impose your out-dated dress codes on me, man!

But, then, things happen to these girls and women.  Not nice things.  Sometimes rather nasty things.  And if someone goes, Well, look at the way she dressed and behaved. . . . 

Then, wham! down comes the blade of the guillotine and off comes your head.  You have made the actions of that female shameful.  Full of humiliation and disgrace.

Shame on you for doing that!

Oh, wait.  Sorry about that.

Would that be called slut-shaming shaming, do you think?


Very recently, a man left his two-year old son in a hot car, and the child died.  While the child was grasping for breath, his father was up in his office sending pictures of his erect member to an under-aged girl.

He knew he was in the act of killing his son.  He wanted to be child free.

So he spent his afternoon “sexting” six women.  Other than his wife.

Where in our culture do we have room for acts like this?  Wrong acts.  Shameful acts.

If shaming is such a scurrilous behavior, how do we come to terms with acts of abomination?

My real question is, if this man had been allowed to feel shame as he grew up, if shame were a part of his spiritual toolbox as a man, would that child be alive today?

I was standing in the middle of room of complete disorganization the other day.  I decided to organize it.  I chose to organize it.  It wasn’t my disorganization.  But it was at my feet, and I was no longer going to walk away from it.

And when I looked down at it, trash, junk, abandoned treasures, I thought: There is no shame here.  That’s why there’s such a mess.

The thesaurus (God bless Roget) lists as a synonym of shame: modest.

That’s right.  A synonym.  Not an antonym.


The quality of not being too proud or confident about yourself or your abilities.

It strikes me that shame is a form of limiting.  When I get to a certain point of shame, I should stop what I am doing.  Like pain in the body.  The message of stop!

And clearly this is what the world needs a whole lot of.


But shame, I think, doesn’t allow us just to be modest.  It can give us humility.  The knowledge that we were going there, yup, which makes us just an ordinary joe.  No one who should stand in judgment of anyone else.

Shame is at the base of that grace.

But best of all, shame can lead us to charity.  To think of those around us with less disdain and contempt.  If we can measure our own limitations, if we allow ourselves to keep our waywardness in check, then we can understand better when others don’t.  When their passions lead to mistakes.  And harm is a result.

Shame creates benevolence.  If we allow ourselves feelings of guilt, regret, and embarrassment, we can recognize those feelings in others and be gracious.

Shame allows us to be fully human.


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