I slipped down the stairs yesterday morning as I was rushing from one class to the next, they were a cement staircase, and it hurt my bum a bit. I say ‘slipped’ because I didn’t so much fall as just kind of slid down a few steps onto my butt.
Only one person, a gentleman I didn’t even give a precursory glance to, was kind enough to falter in his own descent down the staircase and ask of my well-being. I told him I was fine, cursed in German under my breath, because I do that when I’m distressed…curse in languages I don’t otherwise speak, then I picked myself up and kept walking.
As I walked hastily to my next class (I only have about fifteen minutes to get to a class that’s at least ten minutes from my first class, and I want to get there sooner if I want a good seat), I thought, I should be embarrassed right now, shouldn’t I?
I tumbled down the stairs in front of a flock of people. Isn’t this what most people attest to be one of their most embarrassing foibles? Falling.
I should probably interject here and explain: I fall a lot. Stairs have been my downfall (pun intended, because I’m a dork) for many decades…well, the couple decades I’ve been alive anyhow. If you ask one of my best friends, she will gleefully tell you of the time I fell down a flight of stairs not once, not twice, but three times in succession. No, I was not drunk. I was actually ten at the time. I’ve fallen up stairs almost as many times as I’ve fallen down.
But I don’t just have trouble with stairs, oh no. Rugs like to latch on to my legs, any obstacle in my path — be it an inconspicuous trash bin, a bit of rubbish, electrical cords, maybe even an innocuous box of office supplies — if it can be tripped over, I will trip over it. I swear to you, the walls jump out at me, I try to dodge but they ram right into me all the same.
There doesn’t even have to be anything in the way, I will flip and flop over my own feet. In fact, I did that this morning walking to my car, my foot folded under itself and I stumbled a few steps before managing to regain my balance. Actually, I don’t even have to be moving. I’ll stand in one place and slowly teeter over, prompting wary bystanders or my boss who should know better to wonder, “Are you drunk?”
Drinking, by the way, seems to cure me of my klutzy disposition. I am the most graceful drunk you will ever meet. Friends and family alike have watched in awe as inebriation takes over and I glide effortlessly like a dainty angel through the room.
Anyhow, the point I wanted to eventually get to was about embarrassment. I don’t get embarrassed when I fall over because I do it so often, I’m too used to picking myself up and moving onward as though nothing happened that even the most obnoxious asshole that pointed and cried ridicule couldn’t get more of a rise out of me than, “Oh…hey! Yeah, I totally did just fall, didn’t I?”
This isn’t to say, however, that I don’t embarrassed. So I got to thinking, what does embarrass me. I fluster, but some might think not easily, because the things that mortify me, I suppose, aren’t commonly humiliating. I’m not going to confess what embarrasses me, because I’d rather you not know my weaknesses should you turn out to be my arch-nemesis.
It got me thinking. There are people out there — I know you’ve met them, hell, you might be one of them — that just don’t ruffle easily. They’re utterly fearless, they’ll stand buck-naked in front of a crowd and proudly sing Yankee-Doodle Dandy. At least, they seem fearless. But what if the reality is that the things that embarrass them just aren’t readily evident. I know, this sounds like a “uh…duh?” moment, but stick with me, I think I’m going somewhere.
Embarrassment is a learned behavior. Just like anything else in our social environment, we learn to be embarrassed by situations because of past negative experiences with them. Because embarrassment is a learned behavior, of course it stands to reason that everyone has learned it differently. And just like any learned behavior, it can be unlearned or relearned.
Embarrassment and being embarrassed isn’t a bad thing. Embarrassment allows you to learn proper conduct in a given social situation. For instance, in my society, in most situations wearing clothes in front of strangers and acquaintances is considered proper and polite behavior, likewise, being naked or improperly exposing yourself is not only considered impolite, it can also be illegal, and it will definitely turn away most prospective friends.
Because we (the vast majority of people) know this behavior, we are embarrassed at the thought of finding ourselves naked or exposed in front of someone with whom we aren’t intimately familiar — hence, the prevalence of naked-in-front-of-class dreams/nightmares. If you don’t feel embarrassed standing naked in front of strangers and acquaintances then you might not feel overly compelled to clothe yourself fully or at all. Now, this could have one of two effects. You could be charming enough to pull it off, maybe found your own cult or get your own stupid-stunts television show on MTV. Or, more likely, you’ll alienate people.
However, embarrassment can be an extreme hindrance as well.
One of my biggest fears used to be finding out that I wasn’t the smartest person in the room. Yeah, I know, it’s a little bit of a strange — if not incredibly arrogant — fear, but like I said, the things that embarrass me aren’t common. I grew up in a household where a lot of value was placed in intellect. To make matters worse, I was always made to feel like the stupidest member of my household, and while my sisters may argue that they felt the same, I was the only one who had the grades to prove it.
Sadly, I learned late in life, that my grades were a product of my fear. I was so paralyzed by my embarrassment of possibly learning I wasn’t a smart person, that I refused to ask for help when I couldn’t understand the material. I wouldn’t do my homework out of fear I would get the answers wrong. I couldn’t write essays because what if the things I wrote were completely off-base, what if I turned out nothing more than idiotic dribbles. I was so afraid to raise my hand to answer questions or, even worse, ask questions that I hid in the back of the room and let my grades suffer. All because it was better to silently hold on to the hope that I might be smart than to die from the embarrassment of finding out I’m really just plain stupid.
Unlearning this embarrassment took me years and years, a great deal of soul searching, and the wonderful discovery of Plato’s Dialogues, wherein I met Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher who was considered the most intelligent man of his time mainly because he knew and accepted that his knowledge was limited, that there would always be others with knowledge he did not possess, and therefore, he should always be in a perpetual state of learning.
I still struggle with this fear. Sometimes I refuse to raise my hand in class even when I know that I know the answer. Asking questions is still one of the hardest things for me to do, and I have to fight the urge to chastise myself for being stupid after I’ve been brave enough to ask a question. But I remind myself everyday that I am learning, before and after classes, I look in the mirror and say, “You’re not the smartest person in the room and there’s nothing wrong with that”.
It takes time. Effort. Persistence. You have to fall a lot before you get to the point where picking yourself back up becomes so natural you don’t even realize you fell anymore.
Anyhow, I guess the point I wanted to make with this post is that: Everyone is embarrassed by something — so when you see that person standing buck-naked in front of the crowd and want to believe they’re fearless, don’t, maybe their greatest embarrassment is to be caught wearing pants, embarrassment has its purpose in life — everyone should have a healthy dose of humility, but when it exceeds that purpose, it can be overcome.
I’m drunk right now, if the meandering nature of this post were any indication, so I think I’m going to glide gracefully to the bathroom, brush my teeth, and then go pass out for the night. I’m hoping you learned something from this post, but I’ll be glad if you at least found it mildly amusing.