Capable Capable
Capable Capable

Hold your head up

All too often, individuals, through no fault of their own, are shamed, ostracized and marginalized. A famous case in point: scientist Alan Turing who worked for the British government during World War II. His skill in cracking intercepted code enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements and ultimately to win the war. It is estimated that his genius shortened the war in Europe by more than two years and saved over 14 million lives. 

In 1952 after the War’s end, he was prosecuted for “gross indecency,” i.e., homosexual acts, and forced to accept chemical castration as an alternative to prison. He died in 1954 before his 42nd birthday. The death was ruled a suicide.

Today, millions of individuals are still shamed into hiding, isolation, and desperation because of their religion, ethnicity, race, because they’ve been disadvantaged by poverty, age or illness, because of their size and shape, because of their chromosomally determined sexual orientation or because they are saddled with painful afflictions or a lack of attractiveness and sex appeal that others find off-putting. 

Of course, we may feel ashamed if we act badly. In fact, the fear of being shamed may help us to behave well. But many of us, despite being well behaved, are the target of cruelly inflicted shame and merciless punishment. The pain of our shame, when we mismanage it, can adversely affect our subjective wellbeing our entire lives.

Even worse, it multiplies. We’re ashamed that we’re shamed. Why? Because we are social beings and accusation has the ring of truth. We feel guilty as charged—no matter what the charge is. We may feel frightened and mysteriously still—as if paralyzed. Or we may become aggressively and reflexively defensive, isolated and unapproachable. Either way, we dwell in self-exile.

In short, it’s shocking and agonizing to be innocent of bad behavior yet a victim of shame. It’s horrible to be ridiculed and insulted and it is humiliating to be pitied. Yet an embarrassed self-exile is self-annihilation, a retreat to an agonizing, brooding monologue, a provincially concocted, description of being in the world and a resignation from a life of creation. 

But we don’t want to be silent, inhibited, preoccupied, suppressed. Or victims. We want to be heard, to stand up, to know courage, belonging and love. If we do not bring ourselves forth, if we do not confront our fear of the external challenge and cope with judgment, criticism, hostility, and antagonism whenever and wherever they reveal themselves, our lives merely scratch the surface of possibility. 

As to the recovery from such self-imposed exile, we who study autonomy and life believe there is a moral obligation to be ethically responsible. We believe satisfying this obligation with respect to our self-rule is sufficient grounds for holding our head up and the key to experiencing belonging, dignity and peace of mind.

No one said it would be easy. Our feelings exist as a biological and socially constructed inheritance. They come and go and it is a mistake to set up our lives to protect them. As I say in my poem, A Voice Turned in on Itself, when challenged, when disturbed, when embarrassed, we can compel ourselves to go ahead with ourselves and annihilate self-annihilation. Intending intention to intend on itself, we can create who we are and show up authentically, defending ourselves and metabolizing experience as it happens. 
Ethical responsibility requires nerve, courage, stamina and honor. It requires us to hold our head up, to stand and speak for decency, kindness, care and concern. As always, I want you to know that I have a great deal of respect for those men and women who serve the public good ethically and honorably in our institutions, businesses, homes and communities. Such behavior gives life meaning and purpose and is, in and of itself, thankfully, its own reward.

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Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes.