Surviving Public Humiliation

Your 20s are humiliating in and of themselves. You’re barely recovering from cystic acne, your parents are still deeply immersed in all of your private affairs, and you’re teetering on that fine line between adulthood and a public facebook page filled with incriminating tags.

And while I’d love to recount all the public humiliation I’ve endured, I’m going to leave this one to our GUEST BLOGGER — Hugo Schwyzer.

He’s got much more to say. And the “e” button on my laptop is broken, so he’s simultaneously saving me a lot of frustration. Thanks Hugo. Take it away.


You Know What I Did Last Summer, and That’s Okay.

Guest Blogger, Hugo Schwyzer

Like so many children, I grew up with an intense fear of being laughed at.  Nothing, I imagined, could be worse than to be publicly humiliated for doing something embarrassing.

It started in 5th  grade when, filled with confidence, I stood up in Mr. Purdy’s class to give a book report on James and The Giant Peach.   I’d read about three sentences aloud when shrieks of laughter filled the room.  I looked up to see two dozen fingers pointing at my crotch.  The fly on my navy blue corduroys was unzipped, and an indicting patch of tighty-whity was poking out.  I hurriedly zipped my fly, somehow finished the report, and ran to the bathroom to cry.   Nearly 40 years later, I can still vividly remember looking at my shamed and tear-streaked face in the mirror, wondering how I could possibly summon the courage to go back and face my classmates.

In the years that followed, my powerful desire to avoid embarrassment lost out to an equally powerful reckless and trouble-making spirit.   When I was 14, I was thrown out of prep school for a host of infractions ranging from a straight F in algebra class, to breaking into the campus Coke machine, to defacing a Reagan campaign poster on prominent display in our very Republican school library.  I deserved my dismissal, but wasn’t prepared for the months of gossip and whispering that followed me around the small town in which I had grown up.  Worse, I wasn’t prepared for the pain the scandal caused my family.

Do better, I told myself.  And for years, I did.  Sure, I had some slip-ups along the way, but generally managed to avoid publicly humiliating my loved ones or myself.  I was lucky to pass through my 20s before the advent of social media.  My poorest decisions – and there were plenty of them – were imprinted only on the memories of inebriated friends.   It was a more forgiving era.

Fast forward to 2013:   I’m a 46 year-old married father of two, a pillar of my community, and a tenured professor with a sweet writing gig on the side.  That writing has made me microfamous in the “hey, I have a Wikipedia entry and it’s not a stub” sort of way.   What I have also are some dark, secret behaviors that have followed me into midlife.  And bam – in one agonizing summer, all the skeletons come out of the closet and have a party in the street (and in the national media.)  I have a breakdown; the marriage is over, I resign from my job.  I retreat to my hometown to try to pull myself together at my mom’s house.  The shame follows me there.  I am hospitalized for suicidal despair.

And then, blessedly, I get better.  The fog clears out of my brain.  I remember I have children, and must live for them.  I come back to Los Angeles, look for a job, any job, to support myself; I try my best to be a father again.

But everyone knows.  My shame, and the humiliation I inflicted on an unsuspecting spouse, are splashed across social media, a click away for anyone who wants to ogle.  I’ve lost many friends.  The ones I’ve kept are kind, but wary.  They had no idea of the double life I was leading before, and now are not sure they can trust me again.  I feel isolated and terrified, the pain of being caught with my zipper down repeated (literally and metaphorically), and now magnified ten thousand-fold.

I go to see my spiritual advisor, someone I’d lied to up and down in the years preceding my fall from grace. I ask her what to do.  “Start by being grateful,” she tells me.  “Grateful I’m not dead?” I ask.  “No,” she replies.  “Be grateful for your humiliation.  You’re living many people’s worst nightmare: being shamed so publicly.  You have the merit to do it instead of them.  And you get to show them how to come back from disgrace.”

That isn’t much comfort, but I cling to it.

I cling to it, and I work, and I show up, and I try to live differently and more honestly.  Some people start to trust me again.  Some don’t.  There is still gossip, but I learn not to give it any energy.  Occasionally, reporters email or call for interviews, but I say no.   After a year, they stop calling.    The sordid story doesn’t get forgotten, but as I build a new life, people stop associating the sight of my face with the explicit details of my worst moments.

As time passes, the Great Embarrassment starts to become just another story that gets told with decreasing frequency by people who have better and more interesting things to think about.   Heck, I have better and more interesting things to think about.

In our increasingly interconnected world, more and more of us will have our worst mistakes magnified and shared and memorialized in a way that wasn’t possible a generation ago.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that we live in an era that’s more tolerant than ever of the reality of human imperfection.  So many people, far more celebrated than I ever was, fall from grace every day.   Someday soon, almost everyone will have an ill-advised selfie, a drunken tweet, or something far worse that follows them around cyberspace.  Once we hit the critical mass of Universal Humiliation, I’m convinced we’ll be more accepting of other’s fuck-ups – and our own.

Until that sweet day, it’s obviously best to try to fuck up less frequently, or at least to improve the quality of the fuck-ups.   (As a 12 Step Sponsor of mine puts it, “fail better next time.”)   With all our skeletons out of the closet, it’s best to try not to hide new ones where the old ones were concealed.  We also have to be patient with the process that follows a great big public train wreck.   We may not be able to reconcile with everyone we hurt.  Some people will never trust us again.  If we’ve lost much, we may never get back the best parts of our old lives. Authentic comebacks aren’t quick or easy, and they are usually incomplete.

But. But. But.  What the Great Embarrassments teach us is that We Who Fuck Up are remarkably resilient.   Those around us are often even more remarkably forgiving.    Better yet, they are remarkably forgetful of you at your worst, choosing to see the you at your best as your truest self.     I said as much to my spiritual advisor the last time I saw her, and she smiled.  “It’s our nature,” she said.  “We’re hardwired to fall and rise again.  We’re hardwired to forgive the falls of others.  It doesn’t make falling easy.  It makes it an essential part of being human.”

Not everyone needs a catastrophic fall from grace to teach them this lesson about being human.  But if the fall comes, remember that, to put it poetically, the seeds of liberation hide in the ashes of humiliation.   For some of us, it is only in the aftermath of the most unbelievable fuck-ups that we learn how unconditionally we are loved, and how unlimited is our opportunity to transform.