Under Your Gaze: Poem 11

I live under your gaze
in a box
by the bus bench
in the bushes.
Though our eyes
never meet,
not a glance my way,
I feel your shame.
Judge my story.
You’ll find it in my eyes.

The Quiet One I Watch Over

It wasn’t easy telling her how I felt used and taken for granted,

all the while fighting self-judgment for sounding needy and guilting.

Do I tell her how I feel, even though there’s nothing she can do about it,

especially knowing that she will feel she has to do something about it?

Do I just silently accept our condition–she not relating to me, not

wanting to be with me, me wanting to be with her but not knowing how

to reach her, make her happy, engaged and connected?

She needs my money, advice and time.

She needs my permission, approval and signature.

I pay for whatever she wants and requires.

I take her where she must go, pace the sidelines and cheer her on,

encourage her, give her feedback and teach her how to live now and beyond us.

We make each other laugh and share sharp wit and sardonic smiles.

She seems appreciative for us, for all we are and do.

No one writes a more heartfelt loving, grateful text.

I don’t doubt her love, she not mine either, I hope.

She’s neither unhappy nor oppressed, just disinterested.

Tied in obligation knots, we–without violence, anger or volume–co-exist,

each with our silent confusion, angst and helplessness, resentment perhaps.

If she could only speak her mind.

Is it bullying to speak mine, a unilateral outpouring inevitably producing reactive

toxic anxiety or worse yet, guilt?

If she would shout, complain and demand, I would know what to do.

But quiet responsibility-assuming aimed at relieving me burden, one fewer needy time-taker,

a sign she’s stepping independently aloof into burgeoning adulthood, leaves me flustered.

No one wins, even when we’re not vying for an upper hand or competing in a contest.

As our relationship gestates, becomes what it will be for years to come, then changes

again, waiting, speaking and abstaining are the hardest parts.

Just one more of the many skills, mothering this one, I may never master.

Why the Word ‘Should’ is a Lot Like ‘Stupid’

In today’s The Mindful Word appears this personal essay about guilt, obligation and giving, something I started to think about over the week and completed to publication.
When are we merely “giving to get something” as Joni Mitchell sings in “People’s Party”?
At 55, those delightful yoga sessions that instantly feel delicious deep down in the sinews and muscles, triggering pleasure sensors in the brain, are farther and fewer in between, even in a daily practice. Most days that great good feeling opens up only after slow beginnings, working steadily into full-throttle fluidity and warmth. I treasure those moments of recognizing deep physiological release and mental liberation. My mind soars with my body’s surrender to more, deeper, and longer stretches, everything opening, including …

Read the rest here.

Should a Cheater Confess?


Cheating: a lot of people do it, but hardly anyone talks about it.

Now, thanks to Whisper — a free online app where people anonymously share secrets — we have a little more insight into an otherwise private situation.

That is what I read in The Huffington Post the other morning while poking around the Internet. Apparently this anonymous confessing site is not the only one either. This idea has been around for a while on postsecret.com, which asks its participants to send in postcards with secrets–so I learned from my girlfriend.

Now what could be the benefit of an anonymous confessional app or space? I know the power of confession is great, a purging, and the anonymity allows for the confession, but how does that change anything for the confessor, the voyeurs looking on, or the couple? I can understand the voyeur part, as misery loves company is not a cliche for nothing, and perhaps the redeeming factor for such a site is for those who peer into others’ lives not just for vicarious thrills but to shore themselves up to do something about their own cheating or their significant others’ like confront or confess to the real live partner.

But as for the cheater confessing, what does that do other than provide a momentary relief of built up pressure that comes with holding in a really big secret. Does it alleviate the guilt associated with the act by justifying that others have done so too? Does it allow someone to reduce the self-hatred that comes with the act by seeing that he/she is not alone or the only person who has ever cheated? I can see how some would benefit from such a site. But for the serial cheaters and sociopaths, this site may actually be a narcissist’s delight; look at my exploits.

I believe the real need for confession comes in not merely commiseration but in communication and validation. If one carries a dark shameful secret, it works the mind of the carrier into shame and guilt, distorted thoughts of proportions from “I’m a bad person “to “no one has been as evil as I am.” If someone on either end of the scale confesses the secret and the hearer does not run away or burn up in the hearing, or the confessor does not explode, then the test of validation has occurred. He or she thinks in relief, “I said this terrible admission but the other is still looking at me as if I were a human being. Or, maybe, even sympathy or empathy.”

Human beings need continual confirmation that they/we are all together in being human. It’s lonely living in your own skin. There is no perspective, no context sometimes. The human egocentric being will distort the degree of horribleness of his crime or sin commensurate to how he feels about what he risks losing in having done that shameful deed: dignity, moral standing, trust, stature, jobs, friends, lovers, spouse and/or kids. For marital strayers, the need for confession depends upon that experience of projected loss and degree of guilt, whether religiously or secularly framed.

Confession as therapy has a long history from Freud’s “talking cure” and later Jung’s stages of wellness. Jung believed confession was integral to therapy and was one of the specific steps to recovering wellbeing. Others, philosophers like Michel Foucault, saw the confession as an institutionalized demand by society’s officials, the confession recipients. Whether criminal, medical, psychological or religious, confession is an extraction of personal details for the purposes befitting the one with greater power, the confessor’s hearer, i.e., police, doctors, and priests, according to Foucault. By the act of confession, one person is dependent upon the other for the hearing, the pardon, the judgment or non-judgment as the case may be, the punishment. One of the two-party configuration is in a position of power and the other is spotlighted in the gaze of the other, awaiting her fate.

When it comes to ‘straying’ spouses, should the offender confess to his or her partner? The answer to that question will vary according to the agenda or, not so cynically, the orientation of the advisor. Religious advisors may consider the moral character and state of the soul of the offender as paramount, whereas a psychologist may consider the long and short term damage to either or both spouses and the marriage itself.

In the small sampling of articles I perused on the subject from marriagehelper.com, psychologytoday.com, time.com and spiritualityhealth.com, the answer seems to be: it depends. Only one of the aforementioned seems intransigently prescriptive: in other words, here is what you have to do to make this work, regardless of the circumstances. The other articles weighed the grave injury to the non-offending spouse against the need for honesty and seeking for forgiveness of the offending spouse.

Some argued that it may be best not to tell for the irrevocable injury it would cause to the innocent spouse (I use these terms bluntly and descriptively only) not only in context of the marriage, which may well break up, but future going for the next relationship he or she enters, trusting issues, for example. Others advocate risking the injury and the probable breakup for the power and virtue in honesty and the contrition with which the honesty is given. Most agree that each case is different, which makes sense since each couple is comprised of specific individuals, not a common class of people.

Confession in itself is a rich source of contemplation, its ubiquity (Isn’t all social media confession?), its therapeutical properties and ritualistic sedimentation in cultures throughout the world, as well as its artistic value. One of my favorite poets, Sylvia Plath, harkens from what has been termed the Confessional Poets of the 50s and 60s, along with Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, characterized by very personal subject matter such as domesticity, relationships and sexuality: novel for its time but pretty old hat now. Who doesn’t write the personal?

To delve in more deeply and expansively, I consulted the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion and found an interesting morsel in an abstract of an article by Morgan Stebbins titled “Confession”:

The act of confession either begins a process of reparation or affirms the subject’s relationship with the transpersonal. That is, one can confess wrongdoing or confess one’s faith. In most religious traditions, the former is accomplished through ritualized admission, absolution, and repair, while psychologically it begins the formation of therapeutic trust and unburdens the subject of poisonous secrets….The word confess is made up of the Latin com (together) and fateri (to acknowledge), indicating that a process of change begins both with another person and by admitting that which is in error.

Getting back to C.G. Jung, in The Journal of Religion and Health, Elizabeth Todd in “The Value of Confession and Forgiveness According to Jung” describes confession according to Freud’s successor, as one of need by virtue of being human:

Man, a naturally religious being, has a need to confess his wrong and to gain forgiveness of one sanctioned to absolve. The curative effect of confession has been known for centuries. Without confession, man remains in moral isolation. Priests, ministers, and rabbis, as well as psychotherapists, attest to the universality of this human phenomenon. Confession is located in that place where psychology and religion meet-guilt. Jung’s views on confession bridge the chasm between psychology and religion.

Confession is relationship by its very nature. One confesses to an other, human or deity/spirit. Implicit in someone unburdening a wrong committed against the hearer is the hearer’s consequent carrying that burden; confession is a complex configuration of moral, ethical, and personal obligations and considerations of fairness, rights and compassion.

Does one who cheats have the right to feel better by unloading the gnawing secret on the one on whom he cheated or is he nobler to suffer quietly the burden of that dark knowledge and guilt so as to keep the other unharmed? If morality and personal integrity is the sole consideration, then isn’t the secret holder/strayer obligated to be honest regardless of the consequences for the ultimately highest purpose of integrity and rebuilding trust, i.e., if I confess the impossibly difficult, I show you I am capable of being honest going forward? What role does the other play as mere listener, forgiver and rebuker? Is honesty always the best policy? Your thoughts?

Shameful Justice: Does Shame or Guilt Punish Fairly in America?

Credit: vergenetwork.org Justice

A time for telling truth has come upon us now.
We needn't lie to get us through these times
You see it in my slain eyes and tensioned brow.
I don't pretend freedom's guilt in these rhymes.

What is guilt of freedom but knowing another suffers unjustly or that injustice exists and society closes its collective eye to it? I am not a proponent of guilt as one of the healthier emotions and certainly not as an effective tool of justice. I do, however, live in a guilt and shame justice culture.

Cultural anthropologists define a shame culture as one that controls its populace or maintains social and familial order through shame as opposed to a guilt culture which controls its populace and maintains order through guilt or fear of retribution (Wong & Tsai).

China, with its Confucian-infused culture, as well as Japan are shame cultures whereas the United States is clearly a guilt culture with punishment the primary tool to deter crime and slake the revenge thirst of victims and their families. Shaming is sometimes used in the American judicial system, though sporadically and sometimes tyrannically. Particular judges, exasperated with repeat offenders, look for alternative ways to stop criminal behavior where incarceration has failed to deter.

Thus, there have been news flashes old and new of shaming as justice. For example, the earliest one I recall is the repeat offender of child abuse/neglect, pregnant with her fifth child, who was given the choice to do time or do Norplant, the contraceptive implant. Holy hell broke loose in the media and public opinion as to bodily rights, Nazi judges, and the like. People do go on. Funny thing is, if memory serves me, the woman took the Norplant, but later reneged and hired lawyers.

Then there were the cases more recently of people having to stand by crowded public thoroughfares carrying shaming signs, like the Ohio woman who was sentenced to hold a sign that said, "Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus." While that strikes me as a fair amount of burning shame and better than going to jail, other signs are not such a measured singe. Around the country, convicted sex or violent offenders, as conditions of parole or terms of sentencing have been required to post signs on their property that warn the public of the danger of entering the property of a convicted felony rapist, batterer or child molester.

However, the ostracizing as well as the collateral damage to innocents in cases of more severe crimes, ones deemed morally reprehensible and not a mere moving violation on steroids, may be too disruptive and destructive. One can imagine angry communities burning down houses with those signs or children of offenders suffering the crimes of the father or mother.

Some offenders suffer enormous shame and abuse in prisons just by the conditions of unending days of boredom, violence, degradation and isolation. So, the result, to some, of those conditions-of-parole shamings or shaming sentences may be an unending prison of ostracization. One might think certain offenders should be forever imprisoned--or capitally punished--but it depends on the offense and the offender, doesn't it? Some offenders can be rehabilitated and returned to the community as productive citizens; some crimes are worse to the community and in their heinousness than others.

The competing concerns of the community, the larger society (for revenge, retribution and safety), and individual offenders (punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation) are always at the heart of the debate, the two always in tension. What role should shame play in mediating the two, from both a retributive and communitarian perspective?

The communitarian view of punishment endorses the use of shame by the community as an alternative solution to incarceration with rehabilitation back into the larger community as the aim. In communitarian-inspired programs, community members, including victims, express their concerns, experiences and feelings to the convicted in hopes of yes, shaming, but not with blame as the terminal goal but reintegration. Retribution advocates, on the other hand, put the responsibility of punishment in the hands of the state to mete out just punishment based on proof of culpability or responsibility and the sentences appropriate to same, largely incarceration and fines.

Shame justice anticipates that an offender is motivated by or demotivated to repeat offend to avoid the loss of status in a community. Retributive justice focuses on society's rights to be unmolested and protected. Retribution is the root of an individualistic society founded on guaranteed freedoms as opposed to a more communitarian-minded society that uses shame not to ostracize but to exercise empathy, identity with the victim, and a sense of honor, in order to reintegrate the offender into the community.

Shame and remorse are the primary motivators in communitarian programs geared toward battling recidivism; empathic ability is a prerequisite. This obviously doesn't work for the sociopath or the disassociated from the main community, such as some ghettoized populations that adhere to the values of subcultures or anti-cultural creeds rejecting the larger cultural norms (See shame prediction for felon reoffending)

Shame is always present in meting out justice, conscience, empathy and guilt its associates or core components. But its effectiveness as a deterrent is certainly debatable precisely due to its power to destroy and deflect. Shame, which is a potent emotion, focuses on the person as bad whereas guilt is more targeted toward the act. In other words, an offender might think, "I am a bad person" instead of "I did a bad thing."

According to Ryan Jacobs, Associate Digital Editor of the Pacific Standard, in an article exploring shame's role in predicting felon recidivism, shame is less effective in diminishing recidivism than guilt. He claims that is because shame is so potent it produces in many the defensive reaction that blames others for the offenders' transgressions rather than directing shame upon themselves; it is hard for them to accept that they are bad people.

Jacobs notes that "blame transference" is a coping mechanism for "the intense self-doubt" caused by shame. He concludes that rehabilitation by shame is dicey due to the susceptibility of any program to this transference tendency of its participants. He recommends "goal-oriented" programs like those of the German and Dutch who allow prisoners to channel their energies into productive work--unlike the American criminal justice system.

"With excessive sentencing, extreme isolation, and little in the way of structured re-entry programs, inmates are practically invited to blame the system and believe that the forces of society have conspired against them." He concludes that this sort of system does nothing to reduce recidivism: "Once released and faced with lower economic prospects and no voting rights, U.S. ex-convicts are treated to the same sense of shame and worthlessness they encountered in prison. Full of blame, that’s probably where they’ll return."

Richard Lovelace, the poet who wrote from prison more than 350 years ago states that "Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage."

While social justice, its efficacy and humanity, is and has been a concern of mine, from both sides of the law, my larger preoccupation has always been on the personal, individual level. A society is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals contractually living. I also subscribe to the beleaguered notion that social change begins within each society member, his or her ability to be compassionate, loving, accountable, responsible and forgiving.

So what about personal relationships? How do individuals exact justice in their familial and love relationships, and what role should shame and guilt play? One doctor, Dr. Dan Gottlieb of WHYY radio in Philadelphia believes more in the communitarian approach to personal justice, restorative justice in the family, community and larger society, and his general principles of personal justice lend support to my belief that we affect a society one person at a time to create a more effective and affective, empathic practice of justice in a judicial system--using shame.

This short, somewhat awkwardly but sincerely produced short video elucidates Dr. Gottlieb's psychological interpersonal perspective of shame and restorative justice.
Click here

So what about love relationships? Gottlieb only lightly touches on fair argument-understanding strategies. When lovers claim "unfair," that one thinks "I should be able to cheat if you do," or a spouse believes the I-should-take-up-the-same-amount-of-responsibilities-as-you argument, what kind of justice are they calling upon? What about when spouses or parents use shame: if you loved me, loved me enough, were a good person, you would do x, y or z? Should shame be used in personal relationships to exact justice, revenge, discipline? This inquiring mind would like to know what you, my dear reader, thinks.