Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Essay on Shame #5

"I'm ashamed of all the stuff we have in our basement," my friend said the day before her yard sale. I tried to reassure her by talking about other people's basements. I asked her if when she goes to yard sales, which she does often, she thinks, "God, these people have so much crap. What idiots they are. They must be so shallow and horrible to buy all this shit." I offered that perhaps, instead, she thought, "Hey, look at this great thing I found! How exciting that I get to have this nice thing for not very much money!" Possibly not exactly in those words, but that, I suggested, would be what her neighbors were thinking too.

She agreed reluctantly. The shame of buying--really, of having bought--implies that buying is doing. People put a lot of energy into getting other people to believe that; that energy is not of interest to this inquiry, but its results are. Once you believe that your actions have meaning, that meaning can be dark and gross just as easily as it can be soothing or beautifying or ennobling. My friend's purchases, now in her basement, soon (she hoped) to be someone else's purchases, said (she feared) something shameful about her. Instead of, say, "the kind of person who would say something cruel" she was "the kind of person who would buy a cat fountain," which was fine--or maybe not fine, but bearable--or maybe not bearable, but avoidable--as long as that cat fountain stayed in her basement and nobody else knew it was there.

I don't there is anything dark or gross about having bought a cat fountain, and as I noted above, I'm less interested in all the permutations of "capitalism made me do it" (putting the responsibility on someone else is part of the shunt-and-baffle system for shame). I'm more interested in where shame lives. The basement seems like such a corny place for it.

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