Where shame goes

The man was a couple of spots ahead in the line. Bulky coat. Gray hair curling on his collar. Hunched a bit, shuffling, but tall. And suddenly loud.

“Is there only one person behind the counter?” he yelled.

The one person behind the counter stayed carefully focused on the current customer.

“Hello? Is there no one else behind the counter?”

The woman behind the counter sighed and said, “Yes. Only me,” and went back to filling the order.

“Goddamn I just want a cup of coffee. That’s all I want,” the man said to no one and everyone. Loud enough for the whole cafe to hear, hovering a couple of notches above an irritable Grandpa voice.

I was just there for a cup of coffee, too. I thought of a few different things to say. All seemed pointless. I contented myself with judgmental thoughts instead.

A minute later the man had his empty cup and was swearing at the coffee urn.

“Is this the only coffee? Can we get some more coffee? Goddamn. Dammit!” His voice was getting louder, more agitated. A younger man walked around the corner, hands up, palms out.

“Hey, hey, what’s wrong?”

“I just—” The older man gestured. “I just want a damn cup of coffee.”

“Alright. Come on. You’ve got to calm down.”

They filled the cup and moved off. A few minutes later I had my own cup and found the only empty table — right behind them. The older man’s mask was off. His face was softer than I’d expected. And younger. He was in his early 60s, maybe.

I sat down and tried to focus on my own shit but their voices were loud. The younger man was leading the conversation. They were problem solving, talking options, reviewing timelines.

The older man sat back, heavy in his chair, and let out a breath.

“I’m just so ashamed of my own life,” he said. “That this is how my life is turning out. This is what I’ve got.”

There was a moment of silence. A pause, it felt, in the whole atmosphere like a collective breath taken in and held for a second in recognition.

We all know what shame feels like.

It’s a heavy burden.

Hunches you over. Ages you. Stretches you thin, pulls you tight, until even the smallest discomfort becomes intolerable.

So we try to ease it, take the edge off, pass some of it off. Yell it into the air. Curse it out of our heads and into someone else’s.

Viscott says in Emotional Resilience that guilt is anger directed inward, anger turned toward oneself.

I think blame must be shame directed outward.