As some of you know, I have a dog named Charlie. I love him but he is often in trouble. And then he feels guilty. Dogs are great at guilt. The moment you walk into the house, a dog will telegraph to you with its whole body the sin it has committed. The eyes squint and dart this way and that. The ears are flattened. The head is lowered. The tail trails. Pathetically ingratiating behavior usually accompanies all this – desperate little hand licks, half-hearted tail wags, general obeisance.
When you discover the actual crime – a mistake on the rug, a broken what-not, a chewed shoe – it only takes one phrase to crush your dog’s faint optimism and fawning spirit.
In a low, I’m-the-master-voice, you intone: “Shame on you! Oh, how could you? Shame!” Complete canine collapse ensues. Guilt overwhelms the creature. It throws itself on your mercy or slinks away in abject misery. This is probably one of the main reasons people like to have dogs as pets – it allows us to wield the power of punishment and forgiveness with such clear-cut, unambiguous results.
Unfortunately for God, human beings are not nearly as reliable or repentant. Indeed, we seem to possess an uncanny ability to shift blame, ignore consequences and shirk responsibility. After one particularly corrupt boondoggle had been exposed in the infamous administration of Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley, he was confronted by a young reporter. “Aren’t you concerned and embarrassed by these activities, Mayor?” Daley turned to the earnest young man and bombasted, “Son, nothing embarrasses us!”
As crazy as that statement may seem, it appears to be the guiding principle in our behavior today. The outlandishly corrupt, overtly immoral, banally violent and shockingly evil are paraded before us, invited on talk shows, made rich and famous and given control of our streets. It seems there is no longer any sense of shame or guilt or embarrassment operating in our culture.
To live without a sense of shame or embarrassment suggests that we can go through our entire lifetime without ever being ashamed of our behavior, no matter what transpires.
I am not saying we should purposely do bad things, but I do believe in the spiritual power of embarrassment.
Consider this teaching:
“Embarrassment is a response to the discovery that in living we either replenish or frustrate a wondrous expectation. It involves an awareness of the grandeur of existence that may be wasted, of a waiting ignored, of unique moments missed. It is a protection against the outburst of inner evils, against arrogance, hubris, self-deification. The end of embarrassment would be the end of humanity.”
Who Is Man?
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1965), 112-13.
When Abraham Joshua Heshel wrote these words he was speaking of our our vulnerability and the opportunity for embarrassment to lead us to depth and spiritual growth.
Speaking of embarrassment, let’s consider the sad case of former and perhaps future NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. As you know, on January 30 for the first time on the news program, Williams declared that in Iraq in 2003 he was on a military helicopter that sustained enemy fire and had to crash-land. Soon, however, some who had been on that mission started disputing Williams’ account online, saying he was actually on a different helicopter. NBC launched an internal investigation.
Williams apologized on air on February 4 and, on February 7, announced his decision as managing editor of Nightly News to take himself off the program “for the next several days … to allow us to adequately deal with this issue.” He stated, “It has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.”
After the bulk of this lesson had been written, it was announced that NBC had decided to suspend Williams for six months without pay from both of his Nightly News roles.
He has expressed remorse and says he is committed to regaining viewers’ trust.
Related to this story are general questions about the reliability of human memory, as well as the psychology and dynamics of lying to improve one’s status or reputation.
New York Times columnist Tara Parker-Pope writes: “Numerous scientific studies show that memories can fade, shift and distort over time. Not only can our real memories become unwittingly altered and embellished, but entirely new false memories can be incorporated into our memory bank, embedded so deeply that we become convinced they are real and actually happened.”
Others assert that people are tempted to lie about themselves to try to enhance their status. Kyle Smith writes in the New York Post: “What Williams’ lie was about was what lies are always about: … The term ‘fish tale’ does not mean you mistakenly tell people you caught a sickly 8-ounce catfish when actually you snagged a 95-pound monster marlin.”
What does Judaism say about Brian Williams’ situation? Consider this episode from the Bible:
(For context, read 1:1-15.)
2 Samuel 1:7-10 [The man said,] “When [King Saul] looked behind him, he saw me, and called to me. I answered, ‘Here sir.’ And he said to me, ‘Who are you?’ I answered him, ‘I am an Amalekite.’
He said to me, ‘Come, stand over me and kill me; for convulsions have seized me, and yet my life still lingers.’
So I stood over him, and killed him, for I knew that he could not live after he had fallen. I took the crown that was on his head and the armlet that was on his arm, and I have brought them here to my lord.”)
Here we read about a young Amalekite who is trying to ingratiate himself with the new king of Israel, David. The former king, Saul, had been David’s enemy and had tried to kill David several times, although David has refused to do battle with or kill King Saul. We also know from the report in 1 Samuel 31 that, a few days prior to this, King Saul, seeing that he was about to be overrun by the enemy Philistines in battle, chose to kill himself rather than die at the hands of the enemy.
We aren’t told much about the Amalekite.
Perhaps he was an after-battle scavenger, stripping the fallen soldiers of their belongings.
In any event, he takes the crown and bracelet from King Saul’s body to give to David, and claims to have killed King Saul himself — at Saul’s request, of course. Perhaps he thought King David would be grateful for being rid of one of his enemies, although he was careful not to claim to be one of them. Just a little embellishment — or maybe some “misremembering” — to advance himself in the new king’s eyes.
It didn’t work, however. Instead, King David has the young Amalekite executed for daring to kill God’s anointed king.
A little self-aggrandizement may seem like a good idea, but it often leads to problems later on — even if, as in this case, it’s not discovered to be a lie right away.
Remember the advice of Mark Twain: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything”.
But we don’t follow this advice do we?
A question: Have you ever remembered a particular event with great certainty, perhaps even vividly, which you later learned could not possibly have happened the way you recalled? How did you react to this discovery?
There was a great op-ed, written by David Brooks, which appeared in the New York Times February 10. I quote a few sentences here, but it’s worth a full read:
“There’s something sad in Brian Williams’s need to puff up his Iraq adventures and something barbaric in the public response. … The barbaric part is the way we respond to scandal these days. When somebody violates a public trust, we try to purge and ostracize him. … I … think we’d all be better off if we reacted to these sorts of scandals in a different way. The civic fabric would be stronger if, instead of trying to sever relationships with those who have done wrong, we tried to repair them, if we tried forgiveness instead of exiling. … [R]igorous forgiveness … balances accountability with compassion.”
So what do we learn from Brian Williams mess? To sum up:
Embarrassment and shame are not always bad — and they can actually help us grow. Maybe Brian will find this out.
Self-Aggrandizement is human and even understandable but it often leads to unforeseen problems down the road. Be aware!
And let’s try to practice compassion for those who have messed up their lives. It could be us.