Originally published on Huffington Post.
Shame and Anger were having lunch one day at a restaurant of Shame’s choosing. They often hung out together because they had so much in common: feelings of helplessness, despair, guilt, confusion and a belief that true happiness is beyond reach. Acquaintances didn’t understand the friendship because Shame seemed so weak and pathetic, while Anger, though aggressive and unpleasant, enjoyed a reputation for toughness, grittiness and a refusal to accept life’s unfair lessons. Anger seemed to take great joy in bullying Shame whenever he could. Sometimes Anger would ignore Shame’s emails, texts and phone calls just because he could. It made him feel vital and strong. He loved calling the shots. If he couldn’t always control the events of his life, he was at least in command of this relationship; knowing Shame had its benefits!
For his part, Shame, who without a doubt lived under the umbrella of Small and Inconsequential, was not as subservient as he seemed. In fact, because Narcissism was at the core of Shame’s moral structure, Shame’s needs, Shame’s feelings and Shame’s priorities always led the band, clamoring, demanding, insisting they have their way. So, while Anger considered himself top dog, he was mistaken; and nowhere was it so evident as on that day at lunch.
“I feel really horrible about what I did to Alex the other day,” Shame said to Anger, head hanging low as he reached across the table for the salt.
“What did you do this time?” Anger said.
“I’ve been such a bad friend in general,” Shame said. “Wasn’t there for him when he was down, haven’t stood by my commitments, been too involved in my own dramas to notice that things were deteriorating between us. And then the other day, I totally forgot to show up to drive him to an important appointment. I really suck… Of course, he could have called to remind me.”
“Damn straight, my brother.”
“I mean, he knows what I’ve been dealing with these past few weeks.”
“Didn’t that therapist give you all kinds of homework to do? Got to put yourself first, my man.”
“Still, I should have remembered,” Shame said.
“Hey, if someone needs a favor from you, the least they can do is stay on top of things. All he had to do was send you a text; goddamn parasite is what I think he is.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. Maybe I just need to apologize like crazy and beg his forgiveness.”
“You know something, Shame, you make me want to puke,” Anger said. “What you need to do is tell him to get a life! What are you, his personal valet or something? I have a good mind to give that jerk a good kick in the ass. Hey, isn’t that him now?”
“Oh, yeah, he’s heading our way!”
Anger stood up. “Look here, Alex,” he said. “Where do you get off giving Shame a hard time for not showing up the other day? People like you are disgusting, you know that?”
“What in the world are you talking about? You’re crazy,” Alex said before walking away.
Haitians have a famous saying about shame and anger; my mother says it all the time when talking about someone who hides behind a wall of anger because they are ashamed of their own behavior but won’t or don’t know how to admit it. Li fe la wont sevi kole. The literal translation goes like this: He/she made shame serve anger. But because it actually means the opposite, I have for years translated it for friends as putting anger at the service of your shame. My mother agrees that this is the correct translation. But as I’m endlessly fascinated by the wisdom and depth of this saying, along with the mysterious workings of these two emotions in human relations, I was once again thinking about the apparent error of the saying in the Kreyol language. And it finally occurred to me that there is no error at all. Because while it is true that anger is often used to mask shame, at the same time, anger is also served when shame gives it grounds to revel in its own raison d’être. Two meanings hiding in one proverb! Gotta love those Haitians.
Having observed this interplay more often than I care to say, I suggest that the next time you are verbally abused by someone who should be asking your forgiveness or simply seeking frank communication, just remember this saying about shame and anger serving each other. It will not only clear up the puzzle, it will serve to remind you that you are dealing with an emotional cripple. I’m no therapist, mind you, just Haitian.