Island and Asian cultures of the Pacific have a well-developed sense of guilt and shame built into social relationships. At least those are the terms that people often use to describe feelings related to being at fault for not exercising culturally appropriate, sound responsible behavior. The result of being guilty of such action or inaction leads to the conclusion that one is ashamed or has brought shame on the family.
In Western culture the terms are typically tied to individual behavior. Merriam-Webster defines guilt as “the state of one who has committed an offense; a condition of humiliating disgrace; the feelings of deserving blame especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy. “Clearly, this is a term that is fraught with different levels of meaning and is often associated with wrongdoing as in committing a sin or transgression.
Shame, the other side of the coin, is defined as "a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming or impropriety; something that brings censure or reproach.”
These feelings, whether understood in the Western individualistic context or in the more elaborate other-centered community content that is characteristic in the islands, carry burdens and can weigh heavy on the mental and emotional well-being of people. The last thing I want to do during this already heavily burdened time of the pandemic is to add to that burden further. But, it is important to be deliberate about how we understand these terms, especially since they seem to fuel the current controversial discourse. In CHamoru, to have “shame” is associated with gaimamåhlao, to have a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others. Taimamåhlao is to be “shameless.” Na’mamåhlao is to “act shamefully.” The term guilty is associated with sin, isao or wrongdoing, lachi.
What is my point? Samuel and I are recovering from COVID-19. We have no idea how we contracted the virus. We have followed all the protocols carefully, have gotten vaccinated and kept our social interactions to a bare minimum. Notwithstanding, we both tested positive a week ago. Because we were vaccinated and had great medical advice, we went to the GMH emergency room after receiving our results and within 12 hours had received an infusion of monoclonal antibodies which boosted our oxygen levels. We are both recovering well and have truly appreciated the prayers and well wishes sent our way. We seemed to do everything we were supposed to do to keep safe. Many in our family have teased us about how overcareful we have been. ”Can’t be too careful,” we would reply. The virus doesn’t care who does what. It does its own thing. We were extremely careful and yet we were exposed.
There is a big BUT though. Because we were both vaccinated, because we listened to advice and got tested when we started having cold-like symptoms (our siblings were unrelenting – get tested now!), because we followed the doctor’s prompt to get evaluated at the GMH emergency room because of dropping oxygen levels – we were treated and are faring well. Are we guilty for being careless? No. Is it shameful that we got COVID-19? No. We are in a pandemic for goodness sake. Everyone is vulnerable.
So how should we feel? We feel blessed and proud that we followed protocol and good advice. It could have been much worse. Where guilt enters the picture is when we know that being vaccinated makes all the difference in the world in terms of the harshness of the virus, yet some continue to believe that the virus is a hoax. They perpetuate lies about vaccines and influence people in their families to protest testing and vaccinations. That is their choice for themselves. OK, but these same folks refuse to wear masks, gather in crowds and jeopardize the safety of others around them. Maybe you don’t want to be vaccinated. Nonetheless, please follow the masking and social distancing protocols for the sake of those who cannot be vaccinated.
When Sammy and I were at the hospital awaiting our treatment, we were put in a small examining room next to one that was filled with a mother and five children, whom we learned were all infected. They cried all night. Frankly, Sammy and I still wonder how they fared. It’s heartbreaking. If you walk around thinking that you don’t have to play by the rules, shame on you! Fan gaimamåhlao, pot fabot!