Data released recently by the CDC showed that 78% of those who died, were hospitalized, or placed on a ventilator due to a COVID-19 infection were overweight or obese, making it among the most deadly risk factors. Health experts have always known that being overweight is unhealthy, but we’ve become scared to hold up a standard of weight in our culture because of something we are even more afraid of—shame.
Our fear of being shamed and of shaming others is a key component of the extreme individualism of American society, sometimes called “expressive individualism.” In this view, we are each the gods of our own tiny universes and have the right to define reality as we rule those universes. To invert John Donne, every man is an island. Asserting any kind of standard from one universe onto another is “shaming.” The science in the actual universe may assert something unequivocally, but in one’s individual universe that doesn’t matter.
In St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, a great place to turn whenever you need a dose of common sense and wisdom, the Angelic Doctor says “shamefacedness” is actually a requirement for one to grow in the virtue of temperance. Shamefacedness, he says, “is the fear of something base, namely of that which is disgraceful.” So, in order to avoid being ruled by the whims of our passions, we need the capacity for shame and the desire to avoid it.
Temperance begins with the understanding that there is a “good” at the end of our desires for food, drink, sex, and other bodily pleasures. Those who don’t believe there is an objective end of, for example, sex, cannot be temperate. But if you do believe it has a purpose, which for sex is the unity of spouses within a marriage and the procreation of children, then you can begin to move toward this goal in your sexuality. And fear of failure, and the resulting personal and social shame, is necessary in this aim.
Our culture’s response to this natural fear, though, is not to adjust our behavior, but to fight back against having moral standards applied to it at all. Somebody trying to apply these standards is said to be “shaming” the other person. Rather than focus on the person who is breaking the moral standards, we now focus on the person who has the standards. It’s the doctor’s fault, not the obese person.
There is a trend of pushing back against “fat shaming” or “body shaming,” as can be seen in articles like Huffington Post’s “What to do if your doctor fat shames you.” But, unless the doctor is mocking or belittling the person, simply upholding a “fat is unhealthy” standard is just the doctor doing his job. Pushing back against these standards of healthy eating can only lead to more intemperance and, as a result, more unhealthy people.
We can see that in the statistics. In the United States, the CDC puts the percentage of those over 20 years old who are overweight or obese at 73.6%, making it much rarer to moderate your eating than it is to indulge yourself. While no one should go around mocking overweight people or aggressively “shaming” them on the street, this does not mean we should give up the standards around healthy eating and drinking habits.
The same goes for sex, which is the third major bodily pleasure Thomas identifies (after eating and drinking). The key is finding balance through temperance. So, unsurprisingly, another trend seeking to push back on shame has emerged for this area. So called “slut shaming” is when a person attempts to apply moral standards on another person’s sexuality. The way one feminist blog defines it is “the implication that if a woman has sex that traditional society disapproves of, she should feel guilty and inferior.”
But just like with eating and drinking, an intemperate sexual appetite is a recipe for personal and cultural chaos. Do I even need to bring up examples of the current insanity brought about by each person defining their own gender and sexuality based on their current inner feelings? The rise in suicide and mental illness is, of course, tied to this breakdown. But a lack of sexual standards also has created a generation of children from broken families. And, yes, the word broken implies a standard of wholeness which is not being met.
A longitudinal study of millennials by Johns Hopkins University found that:
57% of births had occurred outside of marriage for both men and women. Moreover, 64% of women (and 63% of men) who reported a birth had at least one child outside of marriage, a figure that rose to 74% among women (and 70% among men) without 4-year college degrees. It is now unusual for non-college-graduates who have children in their teens and twenties to have all of them within marriage.
For those whose individualism places them in their own universe where they create right and wrong, there is nothing to say about these numbers, which have made the United States the nation with the highest percentage of single mothers in the world. But for Catholics, and others who understand how families, communities, and cultures thrive, we know that if 57% of the babies millennials have are born outside of marriages, that means at least 57% of children are being cheated.
Those who have cheated them should feel a sense of shame—and not just their parents, but also those who normalize this “new normal.” Even those who say they personally wouldn’t have a child outside of marriage but wouldn’t judge those who do are at fault, because they are agreeing to respect the valueless individualism which makes it all possible. These children are not going to be raised inside their parents’ valueless universe though. They will be raised in the real world, a real world where they will be at a much higher risk of living in poverty, abusing drugs, being physically and sexually abused, dropping out of school, and going to prison than those who are raised by their married biological parents.
Shame is a negative feeling, so we don’t apply standards on people in an attempt to avoid causing them pain. But what about the real pain of a fatherless child or of an overweight patient struggling to breath due to COVID-19? They need to be told the truth in love, if not directly then at least by maintaining standards based in truth which people are aware of and hold in common. The pain of shame is like a fire alarm; the alarm is uncomfortable, but it prevents us from a much greater pain of losing our home or dying in a house fire. Rather than be bothered by this moral alarm bell of shame, though, we’ve disconnected it to avoid its discomfort, and now our cultural house is on fire. And for that, we should be ashamed of ourselves.
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