It's Pretty OK
Solving the paradoxes of our time since 2016

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On Shame

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I went to preschool in what was effectively a church basement, because it was conveniently located around the corner. My family wasn’t particularly religious; if anything, we were “9/11 Christians”: when traumatic events happened, we all of a sudden popped up in church. Fortunately, I have avoided too many traumatic events in my life, but near the end of preschool, I learned a lesson that has stuck with me since.

I was 4 or 5, and we were in line to get trail mix at snack time. I was picking at whatever was sweet in it as I left the line, when I realized the stares and the admonishment that followed: we had not prayed yet...and I was eating. This is one of my earliest memories, and it is undoubtedtly my first internalization of shame. Absent-mindedly or not, I had been selfish and broken the rules, and I felt horrible about it.

Did I stifle back tears? I mean, probably. I was four, and I felt really bad for breaking the rules, something I have been a stickler about ever since.

Since that day, shame has been one of my strongest feelings, especially when it comes as a result of breaking some sort of rule—written or inferred. I try to avoid it like the plague. But I have had two notable dabbles in shame of late, both fueled by the same contemporary cause.

Recently, I was at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria. It is no longer an actual torpedo factory; today, artisans use the space to display ceramics, paintings, and, in this case, sculpture in “stalls.” One stood out to me: bent metal sculptures in bold lines of color. As one does, I wanted to capture this so that I could remember the artist’s creations and share my experience with others, so I snapped a picture with my phone. That was when a gruff voice behind me bellowed: “No pictures, no pictures!” Admittedly, there was a sign posted with this information, though I hadn’t it. Sheepishly, I said “okay,” deleted the picture, and immediately left.

Shame followed me out, but this was not exactly the same shame that I knew from youth. It started as embarrassment, but then bloomed into anger. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to take a picture? If I share it with people or put it online (with credit!), isn’t that free marketing for them? Who do they think they are?

What a ridiculous rule. Truly, in this social-media age, with the proliferation of images on the internet, why doesn’t the artist embrace the sharing of their work? Sure, they want people to buy it, but by confining their market to this stall or their website, aren’t they missing out on potential buyers? The incident still sits with me because I’m embarrassed a bit, but more because I’m still angry that someone who surely wants recognition for their work is consciously limiting that.

Then a more classic shame found me abroad.

I went to a bar after dinner on my last evening in Madrid. I had received an excellent recommendation that set my expectations high, yet they were still exceeded. Old, charming, and authentic are the best words to describe it without being specific. It’s difficult to describe without being there, and the best way to bridge that gap is a picture, maybe even a video to understand the atmosphere as well. So I did that.

Once again, I missed a sign. Once again, I was met with a feverish “no pictures,” this time in pleasant, uncertain English. But this time, my reaction was more like the Original Shame I felt back in preschool. I was embarrassed and distraught because I had broken a rule I immediately respected.

The thing about old, authentic places is that what ruins them are people like me, or at least the faux-hip, obviously American tourist persona I projected when I took the picture. My goal is to blend in with locals on a trip. As soon as I hit the button, I had failed, and furthermore, I caused a rift between myself and the server.

I adored the bar so much I wanted to capture it and share it, but that was selfish. The place was vibrant and bustling with locals—it was not meant for the version of me that took my phone out to snap a picture. They welcome those who come in and appreciate their culture and the rules, both written and implied, that inform it. An island in the buzzing sea of the now, they want people to come in, turn off, and detach as a community. Too often, phones are portals to shame, haunting you with Facebook push notifications to RSVP to parties you have no intention of attending or shipping confirmation emails reminding you of the cringe-worthy purchase you made that one time.

We all need a break from that constant stream of shame, which is the thing that the bar understood and I did not. Their rules enabled collective merriment for those who needed an escape from the shame-filled world outside, and I opened a rift to that alternate universe when I pulled my phone from my pocket. That photo was for no one other than myself, and my selfishness meant I failed the bar’s social contract.

I broke the rules, and more importantly, I poisoned everyone’s watering hole with my shame. So I thanked my server profusely, apologized again, and left. I didn’t want the plague of shame to linger. For once, I wanted to think of those other than my phone-facilitated self.

-Pierce Bishop