I WAS NOT BORN HERE

I am a registered member of the secular western world. I can deploy electronic toys, I respect rational thinking so far as it goes and I have to acknowledge the generations of labour and suffering and enterprise that have made possible this ‘padded world through which we in the western world float, half asleep,’ as John Ralston Saul says. It is the society in which I grew up.

But I was not born here. It is true I came to light in Manitoba, and my parents were conventional United Churchgoers, and I am protestant to the bone; nonetheless I appear to have been a changeling. I know this because I have no sense of personal guilt. None. While I may have a sense of having done something ‘wrong,’ I lack the sense of having transgressed. I know the theory of original sin but I don’t understand it. Perhaps this is a limitation of my mind. Not the only limitation, many would say.

The common assumption in the western world is that God is dead and guilt is irrelevant. It may be irrelevant, but it hasn’t gone out of fashion. Guilt is quite plainly there behind the jokes and the careful irony with which ‘religion’ is referred to, it’s a constant in advertising (guilt-free tacos), and guilt runs like a leitmotiv through most of the ‘serious’ writing on psychoanalysis and philosophy today, though the guilt in question is not specifically Christian guilt.

I understand that guilt comes from a sense of having violated a set of rules, usually of behaviour. I have never quite understood how the fathers of the early church were able to transform priestly prohibitions into an insomniac monitor in the heart of the parishioner. I suspect they did it by getting at the children at an early age. However it was done it has survived the generations, transposed into Protestantism, rootless and amorphous now, but still part of the human mind.

Except mine, evidently—and others of course; I am hardly alone.

In place of guilt I am prey to shame. No other word for it. I have a strong sense of myself, and I see it as damaged by my own acts and my own stupidity, the clumsy way I have dealt with people since my late teens, my rejection of those mutely reaching out for help, or even just for talk. I have rejected friendship offered by others, I hear a man’s exasperated voice, “Tod, I’m trying to HELP you!” I have failed other people and failed myself. I am not a callous person; I know that I have hurt people and gone away and not even tried to make it up to them. And the harm that I have done to others is the matter of my shame. There is no absolution for shame; it leaves permanent dents in one’s sense of oneself.

But Tod, you will say, these are extremely venial little failings, surely you make too much of them. You have not beaten, torched, stolen, killed. So it’s rather academic, isn’t it? A bit of self-indulgence, perhaps? Suppose a major event were to happen, say you became drunk, lost control of your car and killed a child. What then? Could you look the parents of that child in the eye and not feel guilty?

I don’t know, of course. I don’t think I would, though I have no idea how I would deal with it. In some true shame-cultures I would have to kill myself; in others there would be a standard compensation for a child.

There is a touch of arrogance about shame: it stands upon the premise that one’s own judgement takes precedence over that of all others—even that of God. Having made a fool of myself is equal to having been unkind to someone. I don’t particularly like it, I didn’t ask for it. It makes for a certain hardness.

In Little Gidding T. S. Elliot lists, among ‘the gifts reserved for age,’ “the awareness of things ill-done or done to others’ harm, which once you took for exercise of virtue. ”

This sounds to me like a man afflicted with shame, not guilt.

So where was I born then? I have no idea. The only clue I have is a picture. In the early years of the century—my century, that is—Edward Curtis took a series of photographs of native people from California to Alaska. At least one book exists of these pictures. When I came to the portrait of a rather disheveled man in his thirties or forties, identified only as ‘Hopi man,’ I found myself looking into my own eyes. When I look at him today I get the same jolt. I see my own puzzlement, my own willfulness as he looks out at his world.

And that is all I know.

I should mention an incident. I think it’s irrelevant, but I tell it anyway. Years ago I was walking west along Hastings Street in Vancouver with three or four friends, lagging slightly behind them. A native woman came toward us. When she saw me she threaded her way between the others, not even looking at them, so intently that my friends afterwards remarked on it, to explain to me in her gentle way that she needed a dollar and thirteen cents.

I gave her money of course (I found myself obscurely honoured) but the point is, why me?