The Power Of Shame


A man walked up to the counter at work and ordered a cup of coffee and a snack. Then a slightly frantic look came over his face as he pulled something out of a large shopping bag he had been carrying. “Can I pay for this here also?” he asked me nervously as he slapped a magazine onto the counter. “Of course,” I said. My programmed response. Then I looked at it and realized why his demeanor had been so frantic and his actions so hasty. Playboy. It was wrapped in plastic, most likely to preserve its most gratuitous contents for paying eyes only. I turned it over a few times in search of the barcode, which was hidden among a montage of barely dressed women.

Normally when I ring up such purchases I pay little regard to whatever hurry the buyer at hand may be in to get the book into a bag and out of view of those behind them in line. I take my time ringing it up and getting it packed up. After all, if they’re bold enough to make that purchase, why shouldn’t they be bold enough to man up to it? But this time I really couldn’t find the barcode. I could see the man getting increasingly antsy as I continued my search. Finally I scanned it and bagged it for him. Quite frankly I was tired of seeing the photos on its front and back covers.

For some reason I thought about that transaction for the duration of my shift. Why do we objectify each other? And an even more prominent question remained in my mind as I replayed the scenario to myself: why do we do the things we are ashamed of? The man’s shame, his nervous gestures, the way he would look over his shoulder in paranoia as I searched for the barcode—he did not want anyone to know what he was doing, so there was a clear acknowledgement within himself that he was doing something to be ashamed of. Yet this inkling of moral conscience wasn’t quite enough to make him reconsider his purchase.

It is no secret that our society seeks immediate gratification, but it was not necessarily his recognition of an immoral action that stuck with me, rather the shame he expressed so profoundly. It was the look in the customer’s eyes and the way it revealed his knowledge that his action was not something to be proud of, but instead something to be concealed. It was nervousness, anxiousness, shamefulness, and ultimately an awareness of fault.

So why do we do it to ourselves? Why do we make ourselves so nervous? Why do we do things we wouldn’t dare reveal to others? Is our bad habit worth the embarrassment we risk in our driven effort to continue it? What would happen if others found out our secret? Would they judge us?

Sometimes I wonder if it matters whether others would judge us for those secrets or not, because I tend to think we are much less afraid of facing others than of facing ourselves. The shame is internal. We don’t require another person’s input to feel shame—we can only feel it with our own permission. In that sense it is almost like our own disapproval for our own actions.

No one else saw the man purchase that magazine today. His secret was between him and myself, the cashier. But he still felt the shame.

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image – mac.rj