The Difference between Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame are the children of humanity.

Though Guilt and Shame are twins, born in the garden, only moments apart, they aren’t identical. Guilt is usually tied to an event: I did something bad. Shame is tied to a person: I am bad. Guilt is the wound. Shame is the scar. Guilt is isolated to the individual. Shame is contagious.

 

In Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol, there is a powerful exchange between the Ghost of Christmas Present and Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge notices something moving near the foot of the spirit’s robe. When he inquires about the odd form, the ghost reveals two malnourished and miserable children grasping his ankles.

“Beware them both,” the spirit says, “but most of all beware the boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom unless the writing be erased.” When Scrooge asks if the children have no one to help, the ghost retorts with Scrooge’s own words: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

The children are symbols of the effect of Scrooge’s selfishness. They glare at him with condemning eyes. Scrooge knows their accusations are well placed. Though their names in the story are Ignorance and Want, I think they can accurately be renamed Guilt and Shame.

“Spirit. Are they yours?” Scrooge asks. “They are Man’s,” the spirit replies. So it is with guilt and shame. They’re the children of humanity. They cling tightly to our side. They will not easily be shooed away.

They are nearly as old as time itself, born in the garden when Adam and Eve first rebelled, the offspring of forbidden desires.

The Day Guilt Was Born

Guilt and Shame were foreign to Eden before the rebellion. But as Eve wiped the forbidden fruit’s juice from her lips, these emotions fell over her like a dark shadow. Their silhouettes followed her until her dying day. She would be buried in their cold presence. And as Adam followed in his wife’s footsteps, two more shadows were born.

Guilt and Shame are conceived in rebellion. They resemble their parents: they have their father’s eyes and their mother’s smile. We can’t deny they are ours.

To live outside of Eden is to be intimately acquainted with them. We know them well, far better than we wish. We would love to part with them. But they won’t leave us alone.

Though Guilt and Shame are twins, born in the garden, only moments apart, they aren’t identical. Guilt is usually tied to an event: I did something bad. Shame is tied to a person: I am bad. Guilt is the wound. Shame is the scar. Guilt is isolated to the individual. Shame is contagious.

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