Help! My Couch Is Humiliating!

Welcome to Couldn’t Be Me, a weekly advice column where I solicit your personal dilemmas and help out as best as I can. Have something I can help you with? Find me >@_Zeets.

While watching TV last weekend, I saw one of the greatest athletes of our generation get publicly humiliated. It was a reminder how unexpected such events can be and how they can happen to anyone. A few years ago, I wrote about my worst public humiliation, in which the person who would eventually become my best friend dunked on me. While wearing sandals. If you’ve suffered through an incident like this — perhaps you’ve dropped 22 quarts of ranch on yourself — you know these episodes can have an outsized and lifelong effect on the person who goes through it. It can haunt people forever, and change how they look at themselves. But there are ways to recover, and in this week’s column, I hope to explore them.

@FutureMovieKing24: Hi, Zito. I live and work in Los Angeles, and a few days ago, me and some of my coworkers (I wouldn’t really call them friends) lost a basketball game against a really bad team when we were visiting New York City. We should have beaten them easily, but it hasn’t been the best year for us. The fourth quarter especially was bad for me. I missed 11 shots, and after we blew an 11-point lead with almost four minutes remaining, I had a chance to win the game but my potentially game-winning shot was blocked by some irrelevant dude, who then pointed and laughed at me. How do I deal with the fact that the ending of my career is closer than I’m comfortable with, and with the fact that I was embarrassed by a guy whose career highlight will be that he blocked me?

CBM: Well, if the block took place in a small arena or a private event, my advice would be to confiscate the tapes and silence everyone who witnessed the embarrassment. But that’s the act of a tyrant, not a good king. In this case, what you should remember is history will not remember the man who blocked you. His accomplishments will be buried under the sands of time. By the next year, this event will be forgotten, and he will go back to being a nobody (I assume that you’re great and the only reason that this other individual is reveling in your humiliation is because he now feels accomplished). To even waste your thoughts on him is a denigration of what you have achieved. He lives in New York, he’s probably unhappy with himself anyway.

Grant: Hi Zito. [When] I was a freshman in high school, I was in a one-act play. We were performing for my English class, and some of the prettiest girls in my class were front and center. Long story short, I had to crawl around on stage shirtless a lot. My pants fell down, leaving me in compression shorts while I frantically tried to hold the costume pants up as I crawled. It did not go well ... I’ve thought about that at least once a week ever since, and that was 10 years ago.

[The play was] Medea. Our director took a weird direction with it, made it very animalistic. I was Aegeus, and I was only in it because I was in debate and she taught both and suggested/forced me into doing this play when the original actor dropped out or something.

CBM: I had to re-read Medea, both the Seneca and Euripedes versions, because I was so confused about which part had Aegeus crawling on the ground, shirtless, a lot. I didn’t find those scenes.

Regardless, it’s impressive you managed to turn a tragedy about a woman who murders a bunch of people — including her own children — into a comedy about a king who can’t keep his pants up. If this had happened when he was alive, you might have managed to convince the comic poets of Euripedes’ time to appreciate him.

To be honest, if I was in the audience when I was in high school, I would have probably laughed at you. Not the quiet laughter of someone who finds the event funny but still wants to respect the play and your feelings, but a Nelson Muntz, standing up and pointing, loud HA-HA! The type of laughter that make you never wear want to wear pants again. You would have had to spend the next years of your life wearing onesies in order to cope with the pain. Children are cruel.

But we’re adults here. So, on a serious note, the late Swedish director Ingmar Bergman once talked about how humiliation, or its shadow, is ever-present during childhood:

“One of the strongest feelings I remember from my childhood is, precisely, of being humiliated; of being knocked about by words, acts, or situations. Isn’t it a fact that children are always feeling deeply humiliated in their relations with grown-ups and each other? I have a feeling children spend a good deal of their time humiliating one another. Our whole education is just one long humiliation, and it was even more so when I was a child. One of the wounds I’ve found hardest to bear in my adult life has been the fear of humiliation, and the sense of being humiliated. Every time I read a review, for instance — whether laudatory or not — this feeling awakes. To humiliate and be humiliated, I think, is a crucial element in our whole social structure.”

Humiliation is a staple in Bergman’s films. His characters are always being humiliated, usually up until the conclusion of the films when they have to reflect upon the lowly people they have become. They must then decide whether to destroy themselves completely, out of disgust for who they are, or accept that shame and humiliation do not define them, wash the pain away, and begin to live as a new person.

Indulging in shame can be dangerous. A negative public event can trigger a person to close themselves off from the world. To truly experience all of life’s wonders, and to see what your true capabilities are, you need to be vulnerable, to put yourself out there, and accept the real prospect of failure and public humiliation. A person can miss out on so much by protecting themselves from the laughter of others.

It’s important to remind yourself, even now, 10 years after the Medea incident, that it does not matter. The event and its effects are only real if you define yourself by it. You give it its power. Those people you fell in front of, those pretty girls, no longer exist as they were back then. It’s only you who is keeping them alive. The people they have become don’t even remember what happened, because even though it was an important moment for you, they don’t have the same psychic attachment. They have their own humiliations, and humiliation is asymmetrical.

There are a few ways to deal with the memory of public humiliation. You can wallow in it, which is self-destructive and a waste of life. You can be like Medea, who avenged her humiliation by destroying everything around her (my lawyers have asked me not to recommend this route). Or you can be like the titular character of The Emperor’s New Clothes, who was fooled into thinking that he was wearing a wonderful outfit when he was actually naked. Fear led the people around him to join in on the lie, until, during a procession, a small child shouted the truth:

“And one person whispered to another what the child had said, ‘He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.’

‘But he hasn’t got anything on!’ the whole town cried out at last.

The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, ‘This procession has got to go on.’ So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.”

The procession, this life, must go on. You might as well walk proudly.

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