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4: OWNING OUR SHAME

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

Let me start by owning my shame myself. I feel shame on two levels: personal, for my actions, and group-level, for what others in my family, social group, or tribe have done. To be transparent and offer an example of personal shame, I can share that there have been times where I most likely have made the women around me feel uncomfortable. As a CEO, I would sometimes tell jokes using sexual innuendo to my colleagues at company events. The jokes weren't at any one woman’s expense, but they were a violation of professional boundaries, and my employees shouldn’t have had to hear them. When I first heard complaints about my behavior, I was in denial. It took me a while to get past my defensiveness and open my heart to becoming more empathic to those affected. Looking back now, it was clearly an abuse of my privilege and power over those around me.

Over twenty years after I and most people had departed from the company, I organized a company reunion. Many showed up, perhaps surprisingly, and I had an opportunity to apologize publicly. It brought immense healing and relief for me and for the women present.


I once felt group-level shame when, after the passing of a close, well-respected elder in my family, I learned secondhand that one of our relatives reported that he had behaved sexually inappropriately towards her when she was a teenager. When I asked her about it directly, she wouldn’t elaborate further. And I could never confront the family member about it or hear his side of the story either. My immediate impulse after hearing the allegations was to want to challenge or deny them, and to certainly hide them from others. If this person I was so close to did in fact do whatever this might have been, how would it reflect on me? If my son discovered any of it, how would he feel about his family? And, when the claims did in fact reach him, my son became very upset.


We can't help but feel the actions of our families reflect upon us. We share not only our culture and values with them, but also our genes. This effect also applies to our larger tribes. Indeed, many modern Germans feel shame over the Holocaust several generations later even though they did nothing wrong themselves.

Thus, as I am a man, I feel group-level shame for all the violence men have done to women over the ages, now more apparent than ever after the #MeToo movement. For millennia men have raped, abused, and molested women and murdered their male kin. What does this history of male violence mean? What does it say about me? Are we men doomed to remain violent by nature? Is it all inherent and due to our biology, our hormonal makeup, our testosterone? And, even if that is the case, is there nothing we can do about it now?

When I think about these questions, my impulse is once again to try to defend myself, afraid of being judged, criticized, deemed less worthy, attacked, or emasculated. Naturally and instinctively, I want to become defensive, protecting myself and other men. I want to retort with how men are capable of nobility and bravery, like when a man jumps to take a bullet for another. But that is beside the point. Instead, we should face the shadowy side of our manhood, and of masculinity, for by diving into the darkness of our shame, we can liberate the radiant light of the flames within us.



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