When is it that we begin to understand the difference between right and wrong? When does our sense of sin develop? For me, it happened when I was about four years old. It must have been a holiday because the whole family was gathered at my Aunt Anna’s house.
I was born ‘between generations’ and at this time was the only child in the family. The adults ranged from my cousins in their late teens to my grandparents who were in their sixties. I remember a number of them were sitting around in the tiny parlor that housed the floor model radio console on a sunny afternoon.
Suddenly, unexpected, unbidden, unwelcome, I emitted a little frrrp! The adults in the room threw accusatory glances at each other. “Who farted?” said my Uncle Vince. “It wasn’t me,” countered my cousin Mary who began holding her breath.
In unison, everyone began sniffing the air seeking to identify the source of the noxious odor that now permeated the small room. My Aunt Anna waved a hand delicately in the air and edged the window open a bit higher.
“Whew,” said my father, “that was a real stinker.”
My cousin George the Clown grabbed his throat and gasped, “I can’t breathe,” then tumbled on the floor. Uncle Rocco batted him along the side of his head and said something in Italian after which George shuffled into the other room.
My mother, whose olfactory sensors were keen, swiveled towards me. “Marie, did you make a noise?” This was our family’s euphemistical reference to passing gas.
A hot flame of embarrassment shot from my toes to my head, providing a rosy backdrop for my white blond hair. Eyes wide and stricken, I was stung to retort, “No!”
Above my head I could feel the smirks and smiles forming and I sat down covered with confusion – which is a lot heavier than it sounds – and considered what had just happened.
I had not only broken one of the basic social taboos but had then lied about it. I could no longer consider myself courageous and all hopes of one day joining the Texas Rangers were from that moment dashed.
What had started out as a mere embarrassment had quickly escalated into guilt which was followed by shame. I wondered if this was the original sin I had heard discussed recently. Were Adam and Eve evicted from the Garden for aromatic reasons? After all, they had lied too.
This small event was my first introduction to guilt and shame, two of the real ball breakers of life. I was only to learn the painful embrace of remorse in later years after I had had more opportunities to be selfish.
But this early experience would serve me well until I could start catechism at the local Catholic Church and learned what real guilt was all about from the professionals.
The psychologists say that shame is just one step above despair on the ladder of negative emotions and since I can still vividly remember that day of more than sixty years ago I find I must agree to its power.
As someone once said, “Life is one long lesson in humiliation.” Now if I could only stop buying whoopee cushions.