The dignity of shame

By Christian Breme, March 2022

Standing in front of a class 8, I spoke about initiation rituals among indigenous peoples: "It can be that you leave the village as a 14-year-old child, and after a few weeks of strict trials you return as a man or woman and are an adult, an adult with all the rights and duties of an adult. And with us," I continued, "there is the wonderful time of youth in between."

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

A girl looked at me in disbelief and asked sceptically: "Wonderful?" Suddenly images of my own youth came into my mind. I started again. I spoke about how, as a teenager, I used to take the mirror off the wall, put it on the table in front of me and try to capture the unknown being there with a pen on paper, and about the pieces of paper on which I listed all my supposed physical defects. I reported about the time when I didn't know where to put my hands when I was among friends; I admired all the others for their clear way of thinking and speaking.

"I, on the other hand," I continued, "had no opinion of my own. I could feel what was right, but I couldn't think it. And if I could think it, I couldn't put it into words; and if I could put it into words, I couldn't say it because I was terrified of my own voice." And all these feelings increased even more in the encounter with the opposite sex ...

I still remember how my hand hurt after the class had been dismissed and left. All of them took the opportunity to show me with a firm handshake that they felt deeply understood.

Gauging one's own body, comparing oneself with others and feeling ashamed seem to be inscribed in adolescence like runes.

It does not seem an easy task at this age to come to terms with our own body, which we have not consciously chosen, and with the doubts, forces and longings that rise from it.

"Shame is the protective cloak of the developing personality, its integrity, its inwardness", as Wolfgang Schad puts it.[1] Anyone who has concerned themselves with the prevention of abuse knows how important it is for the child and for the subsequent adult to experience that this individual space is respected, starting in early childhood.

The Freiburg psychologist Stephan Marks[2] compares shame to a cup that keeps on filling as if by itself from the depths, until one day it overflows. He distinguishes between "a healthy measure" and "too much". By the latter he means being flooded with feelings of shame, which is close to a pathological state and triggers instinctive protective mechanisms such as attacking, fleeing or hiding.

I still have the picture before me of Marks pacing up and down in front of his audience for over an hour, talking about forms of shaming and defending oneself from shame, pouring water from a jug into his glass repeatedly until the glass overflowed and he himself was standing in the water.

This lesson got under the skin: the fatal effect of bullying was vividly illustrated. So too were the consequences of ignoring children and young people as well as of denying recognition and consistently favouring others.

Marks summarised: "Shame is like a seismograph that reacts sensitively when the basic human need for recognition, protection, belonging or integrity has been violated, when a person's dignity has been violated."[3]

The profession of teacher and preschool teacher is particularly exposed to the danger of generating shame by putting people down or belittling them. This can happen completely thoughtlessly, but it can also be the unfortunate effect of insensitivity and a domineering attitude. Thus we are called upon as parents and teachers to be sensitive to these effects of our behaviour. For teachers it is a matter of professionalism.

How do we support transgender children and young people?

How can we support transgender children in full recognition of their integrity and respect their basic need for recognition, belonging and protection?

It takes a long time for transgender children to attract attention in the group. Their inner conflict, the dissonance of body and soul, is not visible externally. They often have a rich inner life and are artistically gifted. Supporting transgender children is a field in which we have little experience so far. Anyone who thinks that being transgender is a passing phase or a fad that will die down or be easily reversed, as might seem to suggest itself at first glance, has not had to deal with adolescents approaching puberty who cut themselves, threaten suicide or seek psychiatric help. The roots of transgender identity and the causes of the constant rise in the number of people seeking counselling raise big questions. There are a number of hypotheses but there is no scientific consensus in research yet.[4] We can assume that family circumstances and social conditions play a role in its development. At the same time we might suspect that deeper causes could lie in the incarnation process.

Many indigenous peoples are familiar with the phenomenon of transgender identity. Among the Lakota people in America they are called "two spirit".[5]

We know from the anthroposophical interpretation of fairy tales: when they refer to the prince or princess that is being sought, they do not mean people with gender roles. They are images of the human being's search for their own higher being. The wedding means nothing other than the marriage of the I with the higher self. The goal of self-development has thus been achieved. That must resonate as an undertone as the fairy tale is being told.

A closer study of Genesis reveals that Adam was not created as a man who was then given a woman to live alongside him, but as a human being. He was the one created from earth. That is what his name means. All of us were Adam. It is only in the second chapter that differentiation into genders occurs. God took not only a rib but one side of the human being and gave it the form of a woman. Tsela in Hebrew certainly means rib but also side. The creation myth speaks of an initially suprasexual human being who began to experience sexual one-sidedness after the Fall.

Anthroposophy has so far failed to make a significant contribution to the gender debate. The idea of the asexuality of the individual I with its origin before birth and the opposite sexuality of the etheric body has been spoken about neither in the public debate nor in education. This is regrettable since it is precisely in this idea that a key to a deeper understanding of the gender question lies.

There is a wealth of educational resources available for sex education at home, in relationship studies and to support classes which have a transgender child. Transgender identity should be divested of being something odd, abnormal.

How do we support homosexual young people?

Homosexuals, transgender people and their family circle have to summon great mental energy to withstand the tide of social shaming that presses down on them.

Where do teachers contribute to this burden in everyday school life? How often have we laid out the great relationship ideal of mother – father – child in pictures and stories in front of children, the ideal of the heterosexual relationship, without thinking of the possibility that we have homosexually inclined children or young people in our classes? How often must they have heard or felt by the time they leave school that they are not normal? Potentially, this initiates a long story of shaming at school.

How can we counteract this without having to relativise traditional family relationships? The situation of the differently-minded children must make an appearance at least from time to time. They must be given the experience of complete acceptance. Relationship studies lessons provide an opportunity to do this.

I told a class 8 about meeting homosexual couples:

In class 8, a colleague decided to invite a pupil's parents to the lesson as part of relationship studies. It was a homosexual couple. They told of their excitement when they decided to adopt a child. How they furnished the room, bought a high chair, bought children's clothes and the joy when there were three of them. Great amazement, compassion, understanding and acceptance could be experienced in the class.

How much superfluous shame can be reduced by a courageous approach to what is?

Finding the right tone

In the fourteenth lecture of The Foundations of Human Experience, Rudolf Steiner spoke of the prerequisites for meaningful sex education for young people and mentioned above all the awareness of a deeper dimension of sexuality. It was this awareness that enabled the teacher to achieve the "right tone".[6] What might be meant by such a right tone could be shown, for example, by means of a Goethean view of nature or by including the spiritual and cosmic dimensions. This allows young people to experience something completely new in the same object, something that undoes the hurtful profanity. An example:

The child does not grow from the bottom up like the plant, but the other way round: from the top down, i.e. from the head to the feet. An inverted plant lies invisible in the human form. We find its roots in the human head, in the powers of thought with which we open up the world for ourselves. Its leaves appear in the lungs, in our breathing. The region of the flower, however, is the region of the sexual organs. Can this image not give birth to new dignity and a whole new sensibility?

All the areas of education and teaching mentioned in this essay were concerned with avoiding unnecessary shame. This succeeds where it goes hand in hand with the search for the being of the I of the young person we accompany. For relationship studies to be developed and for the promotion of relationship skills this means: stable, self-confident people capable of relationships can only thrive where from the beginning they experience affirmation and friendship in their innermost being, i.e. at the level of their I. Such experiences lead to relationships that are filled with human dignity and that thrive on trust and friendship.

About the author: Christian Breme was a class, art and handicrafts teacher at Waldorf schools in Germany and Switzerland for 35 years. Today he is a lecturer at the Academy of Anthroposophical Education in Dornach and a guest lecturer on teacher training courses in other countries. He initiated the integration of "relationship studies" into the curriculum at the Swiss Rudolf Steiner schools. www.ikaros.ch


[1] Wolfgang Schad: "Scham als Entwicklungsraum des Menschen", in: Zeitschrift Die Drei, 12/1979

[2] Stephan Marks: Scham. Die tabuisierte Emotion, Ostfildern 2021

[3] Ibid.

[4] However, the causes of the significant increase in the number of those seeking treatment and counselling, including a high proportion of female adolescents (according to their birth sex), are disputed. In the opinion of the German Ethics Council, they urgently require further clarification. "Because of the high risk of self-harm and suicide," the recommendation reads, "if the child is sufficiently capable of insight and judgement to understand the scope and significance of the planned treatment, to form their own judgement and to decide accordingly, their will must be materially taken into account". Without their consent or even against their will – solely on the basis of their parents' consent – the child may not then be treated."

[5] Two-Spirit (also two spirit or, occasionally, twospirited) is a modern, pan-Indian, umbrella term used by some Indigenous North Americans to describe Native people in their communities who fulfill a traditional third-gender (or other gender-variant) ceremonial and social role in their cultures Source: Wikipedia

[6] Rudolf Steiner: Allgemeine Menschenkunde, GA 293, Dornach 2019, p. 617

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