A Crying Shame

Rainbow LighteningOn our first day at grammar school, each of us had to state out loud our name and address while the teacher wrote down our individual details. Around the class the roll-call went until it came to me. When I said my address, the teacher looked up from her register.

“Oh! I didn’t know we allowed anyone from that place to come to this school,” she said.

My cheeks blushed and I cast my eyes down at the desk while the whole class looked down on me and sniggered. The emotion I felt, most powerfully, was that of shame. I was ashamed that I had been allowed to attend grammar school when it was clearly against the rules of their society. The teacher had given her humiliating judgment and the class agreed.

It was clear that the emotions those class members felt were a mixture of judgment and pleasure. The pleasure of shaming a poor boy from state housing coming to a wealthy grammar school.

There is a huge difference between embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment is a sense of being exposed without having violated some personal or social norm. On the other hand, shame is a painful feeling about oneself, often as a result of being judged in a social context for being sinful.

It’s ironic that society mostly looks down on people who have very little and looks up to people who have everything. Should judgment really be so shallow that I should look with disdain at a hungry child but look with admiration at someone who has a sprawling estate and a personal cinema room?

Frank McCourt, the sadly deceased author of Angela’s Ashes, said he could not watch an appeal for hungry children on TV without weeping. He wept because he knew the gnawing pain of hunger. He also knew the absurd sense of shame that society can make you feel for being impoverished. The same feelings I had in that grammar school classroom.

If we look at the other end of society’s measure of wealth, we see that the richest 85 people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion. Yes, billion. Is that a shame? It depends what they do with their wealth and whether the contest to see who has the biggest super-yacht is more fulfilling than giving a destitute child a glass of milk each day. It’s not for me to judge.

Regardless of wealth, we can all live in a state of constant poverty. A poverty of compassion, a poverty of humanity, a poverty of true happiness.

But I do want to thank my teacher for something. She taught me that it’s a crying shame to judge people by their possessions or by where they live.

I Feel No Shame

We had to go to the butchers shop late in the day. Our butcher knew we would always go there when he was getting ready to close the shop on Saturday because you could find all manner of bargains at the end of the day, especially if you had a dog to feed back home.  But we didn’t have a dog.

And that day, he didn’t have the ox heart that Mum usually bought and I must admit I was a bit relieved because only the week before, I ended up with a mouth full of arteries and they were very rubbery and difficult to chew and if you swallowed one whole it could get stuck from your mouth to your throat and choke you.  And he didn’t have half a sheep’s head because Mrs. Arnold, the Irish woman with the nine kids who claimed she was a Catholic even though she never went to church, bought the last one.  And the pork belly was far too much money for us that day, although the butcher told us that pork crackling is a wonderful thing along with some delicious apple sauce.

And when we got home with the rag end of the mince, which was more suet and sawdust than meat, Mum threw it down on the kitchen table and sat in the chair and wept.  I watched the butchers paper as the purple blood from the minced meat soaked its way through.  I waved the flies away but they kept coming back the way flies do.

I put my arms around her shoulders as best I could and she said, “Oh, Johnny, oh Johnny, oh Johnny,” in between sobs and I didn’t like it when she did that because it made me want to cry too.  And everyone knows, for the love of God, I was the man of the house but I was only nine years old and I just didn’t know how to make money so my Mum could afford pork belly. Or maybe even a chicken, one day.

She cried for her shame at not being able to feed us. And for her shame at pretending we had a dog at home to feed and not to let the butcher know that we were destitute. She cried for the shame of it all. And I cried with her. Tears for our shame.

But I feel no shame today. Because now I know. There is no shame in poverty. There is only shame in those who look down on the poverty of others.

Poverty of Existence

Growing up, I had two pairs of underwear – one on and one in the wash.  We did the washing on Saturdays but bath-time was less frequent.  If I tell someone I grew up in poverty, they don’t continue the conversation.  Why should they?  Poverty is not something that is meaningful just as a word.  Poverty is the absence of something relative to the wealth of others around you.  But that too is relative.  A kid in our class had no underwear at all.  We found out when we got changed for physical education in the classroom, girls and boys together.  So with my grubby underpants, I was wealthy relative to him.

Destitution, on the other hand, is the inability to provide for the basic needs of human existence – nutrition, shelter, health, clothing.  After my Dad abandoned us, we were destitute.  I realized only recently that there were aspects of destitution that I would hide, if I could.  I would hide that I was hungry because I could.  You can’t see hunger.  And I would never bring anyone back to our house because I didn’t want them to see the filth and the rags and squalor we lived in.  I tried to hide my destitution because I was ashamed of it.  I can still feel the shame, typing these words.  Frank McCourt said the same thing in Angela’s Ashes, the growing shame that others make you feel for your poverty.

The shame isn’t within us to begin with.  It is planted there by others who need to feel better about themselves.  They point at your toes sticking out of the end of your broken shoes and laugh.  They point at the kid getting changed in the classroom with his nakedness on view for everyone to see.  They point and they laugh.

I have made an enormous success of my life by most measures.  But whether I know them or they are a stranger, I never laugh at anyone who has less than me.

%d bloggers like this: