Shams and Shame

In the book, Mark Twain and the Art of the Tall Tale, Henry Wonham quotes Twain as saying, “the moral responsibility of the American humorist is ‘the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities,’ and ‘the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence.’” Thus, he said,

Hans Andersen’s fairy tales | Source: Internet Archive | License: CC0
“The Emperor’s New Clothes,” illustration by W. Heath Robinson, from Hans Andersen’s fairy tales, 1913 | Source: Internet Archive

“the humorist is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges, and all kindred swindles, and is the natural friend of human rights and liberties.”

Twain offered high praise to the irreverent press suggesting that when newspapers laugh one good king to death, they laugh a thousand cruel and infamous shams into the grave.

We may not have Mark Twain to expose the shams we are experiencing today, but thank heavens for John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Trevor Noah and others who are poking fun and shedding tears for the thousand cruel shams we are witnessing under the Trump administration.

Let’s start with the fundamentals. What is a sham? What is real shame?

sham definition

Title: Fake Million Dollar Bill | Author: Simon Davison | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY 2.0
Title: Fake Million Dollar Bill | Author: Simon Davison | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY 2.0

A sham is defined as something that is not what it purports to be; a spurious imitation, a fraud or hoax. Shamming is pretending to be something or someone you are not – counterfeit. Synonyms include mocking, imitating, feigning, and faking.

Shame, on the other hand, is a painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, or ridiculous. It is a feeling of disgrace or regret. Shame is caused by the exposure of indecent conduct or being caught in a lie.
Given those definitions, it requires little effort to conclude that Trump is a complete sham with no shame. That’s pretty simple.

Image Credit: Eleanor Caves and Claire Spottiswoode | Source: African Cuckoos | Used with permission of the authors
The cuckoo finch tricks other species into raising its young by laying “parasite” or “guest” eggs in the nest of a “host” species. The cuckoo eggs visually mimic the host eggs. Eleanor Caves studied the competitive relationship between host and guest as certain often-targeted host species evolve complex egg patterns to distinguish their own eggs from others | Image Credit: Eleanor Caves and Claire Spottiswoode | Source: African Cuckoos

On a more complex level, however, reflecting on the shame of shamming brought me back to the work of Gurdjieff, who wrote incisively about what he called organic shame.

He defines this quality as the primary factor in objective morality. It made me think about the nature of shame and morality as it exists in today’s world.[2]

Gurdjieff suggests that morality must first begin within a human being and must be sensed from a rigorously educated inner structure. His main point is that we don’t have such an inner structure, and we don’t make the effort to acquire it.

Gurdjieff declares that the biggest problem is that we seek to understand morality from external sources, whereas organic shame is deeply and directly tied to the idea of an inner morality developed from the divine good in the soul.

The principle is that our inner self is capable of sensing the divine good, an objective morality that enters humankind from a higher level. It is objective because it is not tied to the external world. This requires seeing one’s self as one is and not hiding behind ideology.

According to Lee van Laer, in his blog Zen, Yoga, Gurdjieff – perspectives on inner work, viewing oneself with objective impartiality is difficult because everything in the media is outward and our culture celebrates the outward above all else[3]. Inward introspection, which might lead to objective morality, has been essentially eliminated in our popular culture. Van Laer posits that what we see is a perpetual display of blatant shamelessness by politicians, terrorists, celebrities, religious fundamentalists, and media stars. The antidote to this continuous loop of shamelessness is a good dose of humility and introspection and the shocking realization that we all exhibit shamelessness in one form or another.

If we really penetrate our protective barriers to get to the real truth about ourselves and our inner nature, we experience anguish and organic shame. Believe it or not, this is a good thing. And it is precisely what Trump and his band of white, rural, evangelistic Republicans refuse to do. The idea of intentional suffering is foreign to their nature.

My question is, where is the shame, much less organic shame, among the religious right’s support of Trump? I’m absolutely baffled by how they can justify Trump’s behaviors and still claim to be driven by Christian values.

Forged Francisco de Goya painting. "X-ray images taken of this painting in 1954 revealed a portrait of another woman, circa 1790, beneath the surface…" -Wikipedia. (On the left side is part of the original painting, on the right is the newer forgery.)
Forged Francisco de Goya painting. “X-ray images taken of this painting in 1954 revealed a portrait of another woman, circa 1790, beneath the surface…” –Wikipedia. (On the left side is part of the original painting, on the right is the newer forgery.)

Here’s the real deal, though. Trump is an obvious and easy example of a shallow, soulless, sham and scam artist; but the fact is that 62 million Americans voted for him. That tells me that HE is not only a huge individual problem, but WE also have a much bigger cultural problem. Shame on us!  If we can’t even see Trump as a sham, then how many thousand cruel shams are we missing. In my experience with individuals and organizations, I see a lot of people pretending to be something they are not. We are all vulnerable to inflating the images we have of ourselves or to inhaling our own PR as a friend of mine would say, but this administration takes that sin to a whole new level.

In the spirit of Gurdjieff, I guess I need to look in the mirror and be truthful about my own shams and sense of organic shame. Without question, I have no defense for not doing more to help God, or Tao, or Universal Energy or whatever source of divine inspiration you want to name.

I lead a very safe, comfortable, and self-indulgent life. I talk about being helpful, but then walk by homeless people and don’t give them money. I complain about executive compensation, but continue to build my retirement account while people are starving in Sudan, Yemen, Syria, and many other parts of the world including America. I rail against the Republican agenda, but I don’t call my congressman daily to speak out against what I believe to be cruel and stupid legislation. I despise Trump, but I’m not standing in front of the White House everyday with my picket sign. Yes, I feel ashamed. The question is, will that shame motivate me to do more or simply serve as an excuse to justify my comfort—and make me feel noble that I’m feeling ashamed and spouting off about it.

Garret Sears @ Unsplash | License: CC0Don’t get me wrong. I still believe in the primacy of the Taoism mantra: Love yourself, love others, and love Nature.

I can love myself—treat myself with care and kindness—and still experience organic shame.

The challenge is to be able to observe the lower (organic shame) and still tap the energy of the higher (acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, and compassion). Ultimately, we want to be able to transcend our dualistic nature, but that’s for the more highly evolved. That may be my quest, but I’m not even close yet. I will write about quests next week so stay tuned.

Until I evolve to a higher level, I need to make sure that I continue to own my own shame—hopefully more organically grown than externally induced. In the meantime, I’m hoping Mark Twain will re-incarnate and get us laughing again. There is no shortage of shams to expose and we surely need to deride the pretentious pretending we see in our government, in our organizations, in our associates, and in ourselves. And, while we are at it, may we shift the source of our shame from external to organic.

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More Information:

[1] Mark Twain and the Art of the Tall Tale. Both Twain quotes are originally from his “Yale College Speech” (an 1888 acceptance speech for an honorary M.A. from Yale).
[2] More about G.I. Gurdjieff’s writings on organic shame
[3] A post on impartiality from Lee van Laer’s blog Zen, Yoga, Gurdjieff – perspectives on inner work

Also published on Medium.

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Wow! Loved it Ricky, but can’t help but to feel ashamed! I’ll work on that… love you my man!


“The truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth.”

― Jalaluddin Rumi

I’m so proud of you!

Artie Egendorf, PhD
I squirm as I read. Who could live feeling “I’m doing all that is needed now” with our daily onslaught of pitiful, shameful, embarrassing news? I used to tune into radio “shock jocks” like Michael savage, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh occasionally to “take the temperature” of the lunatic fringe. But now their having their supreme moment on the world stage. The human wrecking ball is in charge. And all I can get myself to do daily is keep on with a lifework to lay grounding for a successor culture. Oh, and watch the only TV program I’ve dialed up… Read more »

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