Saturday, May 7, 2011

Avoiding Humiliation

"Avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy and probably of our lives," wrote John Guare, the playwright, who said he was chiefly interested in how characters (and people in real life) avoid humiliation.

This statement caught my attention. It reminded me of my own life-long fear of being shamed and even of the many people I know--most of my students included--who would do anything rather than stand up and speak before a group of people. The fear of looking like a fool is apparently widespread, if not universal.

I always thought we in the West were part of a guilt culture--all that Biblical sin and need for forgiveness--rather than a shame culture, yet I suspect the two are not opposed at all, as I was taught, but related. What was the first thing Adam and Eve noticed after the Fall? That they were naked (and ashamed).

The Christian aspect of the so-called guilt culture values humility, a willingness to surrender the ego and its desires for a higher goal. There's nothing popular or admirable about being humble--in the eyes of the world. One can be humble without being shamed, embarrassed, or humiliated, though I think this takes heroic, saintly talent.

Reading about E. B. White not long ago, in an engaging memoir by Roger Angell, his son-in-law, I was intrigued to learn that yet another distinguished person--in this case a noted stylist and author of great influence--was so socially inhibited that going to weddings, receptions, parties, or funerals--any kind of gathering of more than six--was excruciatingly painful. He is not alone by any means. Many sensitive, intelligent people are socially shy for genetic reasons, apparently, even though some learn to cope with this.

Do they fear embarrassment? Or humiliation, which goes deeper? Perhaps both, unconsciously, I would say. I also think of the kids who learn early in school that their writing might be held up to scorn--and their worth as human beings de-valued--so they hold back, refusing to call attention to themselves and thus avoiding the pain of criticism. I recall the remark by Mark Twain: It is better to say nothing and be thought stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

The lengths to which many of us go to avoid humiliation can be humorous, if we have the objectivity to stand back and look at our lives. If King Lear could have laughed at his absurd plight, his tragedy would have been a comedy. If E. B. White could have laughed at his fear of social embarrassment, would that have cured him?

I don't think humor goes very far when issues of race and gender are part of the humiliation. Yet much of the bemused reaction to the Birther "issue"--by the President himself to some degree, might be an exception. It's almost as if Obama refused to be humiliated by the nonsense.

We have to take some risks. Going public in a blog like this is risky. But I hope that most of what I say will not seem foolish and, when I do toss off ideas carelessly, the overall body of work I "have put out there" will save me--not from healthy criticism but from dreaded humiliation.

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