Cowardice to Shame to Anger: A Lesson from Screwtape

“But hatred is best combined with Fear. Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful–horrible to anticipate, horrible to feal, horrible to remember; Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate. And Hatred is also a great anodyne for shame. To make a deep wound in his charity, you should therefore first defeat his courage.”
The Screwtape Letters, p. 147

Here, Screwtape (and Lewis, giving the old tempter voice) calls hatred an anodyne for shame. It kills the pain; it medicates against the feelings of shame. How true I’ve found this in my own life. When I feel annoyed at my wife or my son, when I’m truly angry at one of them, it is often at a time that I’m feeling shame. Often the anger is covering another feeling that I’d rather not experience, such as shame at uncovering a failing of my own. It covers the unsavory feeling with one that I can relish. It feels so much better to be angry than to be shamed.

Cowardice — at facing responsibility, at owning up to failure, at honest assessment of oneself — is, as Lewis says, a painful vice. This is unusual! Few vices are painful at the time, at least on the level that matters to the one engaging in the vice. Few vices feel bad at the time; they feel bad later, while the devil accuses you. But cowardice, and the following shame of it, hurt. They only hurt. And so one vice begets another, and those drive us on to a third.

If you have not seen this in yourself (check again – are you sure?), you have encountered this behavior in the addicted. Whether it is in smoking, drinking, drug use, sex, or any one of a number of captive vices, the addict lashes out at the people who love him and most want to help. I think, from Screwtape’s assessment, we can posit why: the addict covers their shame, their lack of courage (whether it’s any longer of their own volition or not) in the face of addiction. They cover it with another vice, for surely the devil prefers that we cover vice with vice, rather than with even the semblance of virtue, lest we get a taste for it. Not only do they cover shame with a vice, they choose a vice with an immediate payoff.

It is truly an evil — one from the world, the flesh, or the devil — that we do, each time we do this. It’s more painful to realize, long past the occasion, that in covering shame with anger, we’ve missed the real balm for cowardice: courage. This is a realization that Screwtape surely prizes. It takes courage to recognize (to know again, from experience; to re-cognize) the signs of that wicked medicine and turn away from it. It takes courage to stay silent or, with a bit more, to face shame. It takes courage to trust the love and compassion of family to carry you through. (And that is the meaning of compassion — com-passio, suffering with you.)

And how wicked is the devil that now, recognizing this mistake, we might feel shame over it. We feel shame over having felt shame. It is insidious.

How fortunate we are that these communiques from the enemy were intercepted so many years ago by Mr. Lewis, that we might have some idea of their workings in our souls. Knowing is half the battle, as I learned in my childhood (perhaps “forewarned is forearmed” tips my age a bit less), and in knowing this strategy we can, with God’s grace, begin to counter it. We can begin to recognize those moments, those movements of shame and fear inside us, and ask God for the grace to counter them with courage. Then can God help us layer virtue on virtue instead of shame on shame, adding humility to courage and, in the end, joy to both.

Copyright 2018, Joe Wetterling

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Joe Wetterling

Joe Wetterling

Joe Wetterling is a professional educator, homeschooling dad, and writer. He's appeared at national conferences, both secular and religious, speaking on education, technology, and philosophy. Joe writes online for New Evangelizers, as well as his own blogs. He's taught in the Holy Apostles MOOC program and currently teaches Natural Theology at the new Dominican Institute. He's a member of the Militia Immaculata and current President of the Catholic Writers Guild. Learn more about him at

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