Shame, Guilt and Conscience.
It's a nice image, and in the last century many psychoanalysts turned to Hamlet to discuss ways in which the conscience and the superego work to help us control our worst impulses. But we don't often talk of conscience these days; we seem to be short on impulse control, so maybe our superegos are no longer functioning very well. Have we given up on these concepts? We don't hear of people trying to "catch the conscience" of prime ministers or presidents.
Carol Shields's last novel, Unless, begins with a young woman sitting silently on a street corner, a cardboard sign with the word GOODNESS hanging around her neck. The novel explores feminism, politics, and writing, as in other of Shield's work, but this one is a little different because of its emphasis on and exploration of the abstract quality of "goodness." The novel was written during Shield's illness with cancer, a time in which she said she was "inundated" with goodness.
In her article on "Intrinsic Goodness," Antara Haldar writes about "good old-fashioned values: pride and shame and guilt and loyalty," which psychologists call "the moral machinery."
Shame and guilt do seem old-fashioned concepts these days. My husband used to tell me, "You can make me feel ashamed, but you can't make me feel guilty." I first attributed this to a lack of conscience, but later saw that he considered that guilt was between him and his conscience, but that shame was external disapproval of his actions. He was a good man and didn't often experience shame but, on the few occasions when he did, I could see that his behaviour caused him pain. He admired people who were good--"as long as they aren't too good," he said.
Shields had a great interest in the quality of goodness. "People are happier when they perform acts of goodness," she said in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel. She said she thought that in this century we would figure out what she believed to be "the two great questions: of human consciousness and the nature of goodness."
Similarly, Antara writes that we "appear to be predisposed to feeling good about behaving well to others" and that "we are acutely sensitive to the approval and disapproval of others." She claims that people appear "to possess a kernel of intrinsic goodness."
Hamlet says that "conscience doth make cowards of us all," referring to the fear of punishment for our sins after death, but perhaps conscience also stops us from acting on our worst impulses because we fear such acts may bring us shame. Maybe there is more intrinsic goodness around than we acknowledge, something that we might well term "conscience."
We should pay attention to the goodness around us, and talk about it. We should talk about shame and guilt. And about conscience, an attribute which would make us better people.*
Carol Matthews' short stories and reviews have appeared in literary journals such as Room, The New Quarterly, Grain, Prism, Malahat and Event. She has published a collection of short stories and four books of non-fiction.