And enduring a dose of public shame could make you a better person.
When you go to sleep without any melatonin, Tylenol PM, or beer buzz, there’s a good chance you’ll be visited by the ghost of humiliations past. There’s the usual horror of childhood bodily functions gone awry, like the time someone I know peed their Halloween costume laughing at a class party in third grade (not me…definitely not me).
What really nags are those times when I’ve said or done something totally asinine and gotten nailed for it.
In tenth grade, I thought I was pretty damn smart. I mean, my parents and all my teachers told me I was. So when it came to working on a biology worksheet in a group, getting in a heated debate over one of the questions with my classmate seemed like a great idea.
“What are you talking about? Of course water contracts when it freezes! Everything contracts when it freezes!” I said, getting a little bit too intense, a little too loud, and drawing eyes from all over the room.
“No, it doesn’t,” he said.
“Of course it does!” I said.
He was laughing at me, with a look in his eyes that I now know was incredulity but then thought was stupidity. After class I ran out to find my eleventh grader friend who got really, really good grades to corroborate what I thought had to be true.
“Stephen,” I said. “Ice contracts when it freezes, right?”
“No, dude,” he said, “it definitely expands.”
“Yeah, when we were out in the midwest, the water would freeze into the cracks in the road, then the roads would get all messed up because the ice would expand and break the asphalt.”
The camera zooms in on horror creeping across my face.
“It’s because of the hydrogen bonds,” Stephen went on. “Why?”
During lunch I tracked down my classmate and, in front of his friends, apologized for being such a dumb ass. He laughed it off and said it was ok, probably thinking I was a huge weirdo for even bringing it up again. Maybe I was. Maybe he just hadn’t felt that soul-sucking horror of being so publicly wrong before. But from then I realized that, at least in the world of science, I might need to check my facts before being so vehement.
And it wouldn’t be too much longer before I learned that lesson didn’t just apply to science.
I don’t completely remember what spurred this, possibly some racialized violence in the school, but that same year the school decided to put on a “tolerance assembly” (back before we realized “tolerance” wasn’t that high of an ideal to aspire to). Someone decided it’d be a good idea to send all the students interested in helping out with it into the band room to talk about what the best way to put on the assembly would be.
Because why wouldn’t that go well?
At one point, a very good friend of mine suggested that there be a section of the assembly, a monologue maybe, regarding gay rights.
Squeamish about sex, bitter about finding out that a (different) boy I liked was gay, and indoctrinated into a way of thinking that I had never yet questioned, I said, “Maybe we should just stick to things that people can’t control and not sexual choices.”
The look of betrayal on his face was gutting. “You think that I chose to be gay?” His voice had gotten the strangled tone I had heard only when he was very upset.
I broke out into a cold sweat and my heart started hammering, “….isn’t it?”
“NO. It’s not.” He said.
This led to a lot more arguing, with me trying to defend the stupid thing I had just said, all the while watching how much my words had crushed someone I cared so much about. The assembly took place the following week, and I don’t remember much about it because by the end of that meeting, feeling like an enormous hypocrite, I decided not to participate.
I wish that I had begun my young adulthood more enlightened, more open, and more willing to listen before blundering into something I didn’t understand. I had to learn the hard way. After school I did some ugly-crying as I apologized to my friend, and thankfully he forgave me. To this day, he’s one of my oldest and dearest friends, and someone who has taught me more than I think even he realizes.
No matter how smart or well-intentioned you are, there’s always a chance that you are completely and utterly wrong.
Maybe social media has made us more defensive and inured us to feeling the kind of shame we need to change and grow. Too often, I think, we conflate well-deserved calling-out with bullying or undeserved criticism. The fact remains that these negative experiences that haunt us as we try to lull ourselves to sleep are so ingrained for a reason. They are some of the most important moments of our lives, and teach us the importance of pausing to listen.