Let go of shame

Three weeks into the Solitary Spring of 2020, after the unpredictable lows of social distancing and the unexpected exhaustion of distance learning have set in, some unsettling trends are taking hold.

I can understand on some levels what is happening. Robert Sapolsky’s book about human behavior, Behave, describes what he calls an “Us vs. Them” psychological phenomenon, a broad human tendency to constantly place ourselves on a sort of home team throughout our entire lives. I sometimes write my blog from a teacher’s perspective, which is to say, if you teach, you know what I am talking about. It doesn’t mean if you don’t teach, you are a bad guy or belong to Sapolsky’s Thems. But it does set up a precedent for the reader; you’re either with me or you aren’t. I don’t like that set up at all, but I find myself doing it, and I see others do it.

Especially right now.

The Thems are the objects of a great deal of shaming right now. I think it’s because of the discomforting uncertainties this global pandemic has presented. I don’t have much of a background in psychology, so I’m not saying that as an expert, but just as a habitual observer. I think we are really uncomfortable with the global and domestic circumstances of a viral pandemic, and we are creating a home team to cheer for, and more poignantly, opposing teams to rail against with fury.

If you are on social media, scroll through your feeds, and see if you see what I am talking about.

“Look at these people ignoring social distancing protocol!”

“Look at this horrible thing somebody did!”

“Why isn’t something being done about this?”

“Can you believe these people?”

Even the very popular, “Stay Home!” message, with its often added exclamation point, implies deviancy with its implied volume, if not also in all caps.

Don’t get me wrong, by all means, stay home. But anyone not getting that message by now probably needs more than an exclamation point or all caps (aka text yelling). Yelling is something humans do during crises, and it rarely yields intended long term results. Kids are traumatized when they are yelled at, or become infuriated.

The same thing happens to adults when they are shamed.

Clearly, the shaming makes us feel good. We get a boost of dopamine, or whatever combination of neurotransmitters and/or hormones, from exerting a home team cheer and an opposing team jeer. We probably want to lay blame on somebody for our predicament, also, which seems natural.

“I might be back at work right now earning a paycheck if it weren’t for those people on Spring Break in Florida/ The Chinese government/ The President of the United States/ Those kids roaming the neighborhood clearly not practicing social distancing.”


But while all those chemicals of fury are racing through our brains, our heart rate is up, and we are adding to our list of things that make us feel unwell. It is distracting us from our sleep, our work and all the things that we do to keep ourselves happy and healthy.

Teachers and parents right now are experiencing distance learning on a level we never thought we would. Both parties seem to be working in concert to provide as meaningful a learning experience as possible for children everywhere, but it’s not easy for anyone. For my colleagues and myself, while there are some elements of working at home that are convenient, none of us is having an easy time of it. None of us wants to do this a second longer than we have to. And I know it’s the same for parents. The moms and dads of my students are absolutely the heroes of distance learning, in my book. But there can’t really be an Us and Them in this case. We have to work together. We’re all making mistakes. I’ve overwhelmed my students with work on some days, and not provided enough guidance on others. But I think most of us know that we absolutely cannot gain anything from being on opposing teams in this crazy situation. We are forgiving, understanding, and we are supportive of one another.

In times of crisis, that’s probably the way to be. Everybody is trying to make the best decisions for themselves, and everybody is weighing the needs of others in that decision making process too. It is not easy.

If we have to take sides, let’s take the side of not shaming one another for the time being. We don’t know where each other is coming from, and we don’t know what hardships folks are dealing with at home and even in our own heads.

Every one of us is part of a greater community. We might find it best for our own mental health and well being to not dwell on each other’s mistakes. Instead, let’s focus on working together (yes, from a safe distance of 6 feet or more) and supporting one another with words of kindness, encouragement, and respect.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.