Among the strong emotions that can make an event stick in the mind is that of shame, the intense recognition of one’s failings, especially that of selfishness, even when the shame is completely internal and private. One of my strongest such memories is associated with a short time after Christmas many years ago, when I was eight or nine years old.
My family was not well off back then, to say the least. We lived in a small Texas town in a small apartment, which was in one of only two clusters of apartments I know of in town, not counting a group of houses I mention below. We had one side of a single-storey structure, separated from two other apartments by a long hallway that ran the length of the house. We had the comparatively luxurious apartment, not only larger but with its own bathroom. The tenants in the apartments on the other side had to share a single bathroom in the hall. Despite our very modest dwelling place, I never thought of us as poor; this was just where we lived, and it seemed fine. There was one other apartment house of a similar design close by. The landlord’s house was on the corner, flanked by the two apartment houses, one on each of the intersecting streets.
Our family always had a Christmas tree: a very small tree, smaller than any that I see on tree lots these days. I can remember our having a tree on top of the radio (radios were big pieces of furniture back then), placed in the front window so people going by could see the colored lights. How big was the tree? I’m guessing it was about three feet tall, if that. When my sister and I were very young, any tree in the house that we decorated and put lights on was wonderful; but, as we grew a little older, we either saw pictures of bigger trees or encountered them in friends’ houses and began to complain about the small size of our trees and to beg for a bigger one. Whether from space or cost reasons, my parents did not buy one of the bigger trees; and the Christmas tree was no longer such a perfect source of joy. I suppose we were coming to sense our lowly status and suffer from it. We had made a fuss about the tree to the point of reducing everyone’s pleasure in having one.
Now, Charles, one of my best friends, had a paper route. He delivered the Fort Worth Press, an evening paper, which he was able to do after school. Charles was only a year older than I, as I recall. There were a few times that I went with him on his paper route, which took us through parts of town that were otherwise foreign to me. Among his subscribers were African-Americans in the section of town where the streets were far inferior to those in the rest of town. It felt a little funny to be going through the area in which all the residents were Black, though I don’t recall being afraid to do so. Somewhere by the railroad tracks was housing for railroad workers. These houses were painted in special colors that designated them as railroad-owned buildings. The first colors I remember were yellow with black trim, though that changed later to some other combination, I think green with red trim. The railroad workers tended to be Mexican-Americans. I knew that the families living in the railroad houses were poorer than mine.
Sometime after the Christmas that was marked by my sister’s and my complaints about the smallness of our Christmas tree, long enough after Christmas for it to seem well in the past, I had occasion to accompany Charles on his paper route. We paused among the railroad workers’ houses for Charles to throw a paper on one of the porches. Unexpectedly, there on that porch I beheld an object, evidently cast aside and waiting to be disposed of, the sight of which suddenly brought my deepest inner self to its knees in shame and guilt. It was the tiniest Christmas tree I have ever seen, less than half the size of the smallest my family had ever had. I could not imagine anyone would consider such a tiny thing as even a candidate Christmas tree. And yet, there it was, bearing witness to the fact that one family had made do with it, had likely found it a source of joy. Pitifully, pitifully small it was. And yet I had complained about having to do with so much more. I don’t know that I have ever felt more ashamed about anything. No, I didn’t run home to tell my mother I was sorry for my complaints. As always seems to be true for me in these cases of sudden soul-jarring experiences, I didn’t say anything about this to anyone at the time and have mentioned it only to an intimate few until now, partly, I suppose, because one’s shame is not something one likes to publicize.
What was the source of the shame? To what standard was I comparing myself and why? I don’t fully know the answer to that question. I imagine I may already have been somewhat conscious of how petty it had been of me to have lessened our family’s enjoyment of the marvelous custom of bringing a tree into the house to decorate for Christmas. Certainly my mother had always made a point of not letting us look down on anyone less fortunate than ourselves; and by making such an issue of the tree, I had been doing that without knowing it. In essence it was the comparison between my own petty behavior with what I imagined to be that of the poor family, and the consciousness of my ingratitude for what I had that shamed me. Before whom was I ashamed? My parents weren’t aware of it at all. So, it was before my own conscience, and in some sense before God that I was ashamed, though I don’t remember thinking of it in religious terms at the time.
It seems that feeling shame as the proper response was something innately obvious, like recognizing some very basic principle of arithmetic or logic. I had no choice in the matter, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, I did not become a saint as a result of the experience, since selfishness can take many forms and is very adept in its use of rationalization; but the rebuke I received from that tree may have spared me the worst tortures of covetousness. I don’t know that I can say that I’ve never envied anyone’s material possessions since that day, but I know that the vision of that pathetically small tree shamed me so deeply that it changed me; and I count it a true Christmas blessing. To me, that tiny little tree seems as emblematic of beautiful dignity in poverty as a baby lying in a manger.