Shame is Universal

6:30 a.m.

My dog is sleeping in, which I think is comical. He spent the past week at my in-laws’, where no one gets up before eight on weekdays and before ten on weekends. He’s experiencing his own form of jet lag. I pay a lot of attention to the dog. I’m able to diagnose his ailments before taking him to the vet. My husband says he won’t question my keen power of observation concerning this dog because I’m always right.

I wasn’t so attentive with my last dog, and I think the guilt and shame of that semi-neglect inspires me to pay particular attention to this one—my forties dog. In my thirties, my pet was just another prop in my drama, a reflection of the fuck-up I was making of myself. In my forties, I have become aware that the world consists of other beings besides myself.

But I think it’s a bit reductive to blame my dog neglect on age, as if one can cross some sort of invisible line and become a mature person on her fortieth birthday. If it were that simple, then the world could be saved by thirteen year-old Jewish boys when they become gallant and responsible men on the day after their Bar mitzvahs. Maybe I would have reached my epiphany via cotillion. We cross hundreds of invisible—and not-so-invisible—lines to become what we are.


On the subject of reductionism, a very brilliant friend of mine wrote a not-so-brilliant comment in a recent letter. I had told him about one of the more visible lines that I believe has marked my character in this decade—a suicide in a family I am very close to—and he asked me why she did it. “Was it shame?” He asked. Then followed up immediately with, “I think it was shame.”

I replied (rather diplomatically, I think) that “shame” is probably involved in every mess we get into, suicide included, and that—of course—this event was much more than that. If we went around offing ourselves at the onset of “shame” then nearly every sentient woman in the world would be dead. Men worldwide would be like they are right now in China, looking around and wondering where all the women went and hitting up anything with ovaries in a desperate attempt to couple before they die. Here is where I separate women from men.

I’m in the middle of reading Lena Dunham’s memoir right now. In this memoir, especially in the first section titled “Love & Sex,” she reveals some of the sources of her own shame*. I’ve highly regarded her HBO series, Girls, for representing young relationships and sexual encounters as they really are—underwhelming and confusing at best, often disgusting and shameful.

I’m thankful that Dunham put herself out there.   Now I don’t have to. And I wonder now how many other women should be thankful that Lena Dunham was creative enough or crazy enough or young enough to put herself out there, to share those secrets that never make it to print because they’re the real, the shameful, kind of secrets that victims of low self-esteem or women who lived through adolescence never tell anyone.

Dunham is making me think differently about shame.   I’ve felt it before, acknowledged that shit happened, that I was once a complicated girl and, later, a complicated woman (and by “complicated” I imply a level of fucked-up that isn’t so much funny as it is sad). I’ve thought about my transgressions, but not in the way that I’m thinking about them now.   Since Dunham cracked herself open and let me view hers, I’ve stopped thinking about my secrets as shameful tales that only I am stupid enough to be privy to. These are collective tales, like the 800+ recorded versions of the Cinderella story that permeate every culture and time period in the world. Shame is universal.

But I digress, again, into reductionism. And before going even further with some maudlin thoughts about death being the only universal that there truly is, I will stop myself. Maybe take the dog for walk. I’ve spent enough time in my head today, and it’s not even 8:00 a.m.

*reference from Not That Kind of Girl.

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