Mortal mortification

Your Secret Admirer

photo of columnist Geraldine Ang

Related Posts

To the tomato-faced guy who accidentally blasted WALK THE MOON in Heyns Reading Room:

Oof. I feel you. Young the Giant was my assailant just last week, the first few notes of “Superposition” sounding a lot less magical than usual as they pierced the foreboding silence of Moffitt Library’s fifth floor. I’m still debating whether or not I want to move to Italy or Japan once I drop out of school and change my name.

To be cruelly honest, watching you fumble to connect your earbuds back to your phone made me feel a lot better about my own previous blunder. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who messes up. But remember that it goes the other way as well — you’re not the only music menace.

Here’s some other fun slip-ups to make you feel better about your own. In an attempt to reveal his rival Julius Caesar’s connection to a political conspiracy, Cato the Younger accidentally read a passionate love letter from his own sister to Caesar aloud to the entire Senate. Attila the Hun most likely died from partying too hard on his wedding night. Thomas Jefferson broke his wrist in an attempt at jumping over a fence to impress a girl he fancied.

All hilarity aside, there’s something rather terrifying about the possibility of your mistakes outliving you. Mortality is an inescapable part of being human. Once our flesh, bones and dreams have all crumbled away, reputation is one of the few things left. I certainly don’t want to go down in history as the girl who plays loud music in libraries, or who once fainted when a clown tried to give her a balloon dog at a carnival. (Don’t ask. I still lie awake some nights thinking about it.)

But I suppose a column on embarrassment does require some sort of embarrassing story. Back when I was in middle school, all my summers were spent visiting extended family in Malaysia, full of stifling tropical weather and even more stifling hugs from second aunts who claimed that we’d been best friends when I was a baby. Typically, I would escape suffocation by slipping out to play badminton with my cousins and a few other neighborhood kids. 

But on this particularly humiliating afternoon, our sunlit court was abruptly invaded by cold gray rain barreling onto our heads with stormlike fury. Literally. We got a monsoon warning about an hour later.

We raced back home, our rackets and stacks of birdies braced rather uselessly above our heads. But flooding ground, flip flops and my own horrible clumsiness turned out to be a deadly combination.

Right in the middle of the main square, in front of a dozen family-friend neighbors nervously watching the rain from their windows, I took one of the worst tumbles of my life. My racket flew out of my hands, all of my limbs flailing helplessly about. I splattered face-first into the largest, muddiest puddle I’ve ever encountered, the thick brown stench immediately making my eyes water.

My main source of pain, however, was the mortification. I could feel all the pitying stares on me, searing my skin a thousand times more painfully than any of my physical scrapes. My reputation as the careful, elegant eldest daughter of my family had been utterly shattered in the fall. But before I had even begun wiping away the tears and the muck, my second-oldest cousin plopped down into the puddle as well.

“Whoops.” He grinned. “I slipped, too.”

Embarrassment, according to volume 62 of the American Journal of Sociology, is the uncomfortable emotional state an individual experiences when they unexpectedly deviate from societal norms. In other words, it’s the unease we feel when we find ourselves suddenly disconnected from others. When we accidentally disturb the peace of a library, we feel separated from the other respectful, studious patrons. We feel alone against the rest of the glaring, judgmental world.

Yet I would argue that embarrassment is actually one of the most powerful ways of forging human connection. We seem to have a wonderful instinct to share feelings of humiliation. Perhaps not everyone’s instinct is as bold as my cousin’s, but second-hand embarrassment is a rather common experience. The mere sight of someone else’s fumble can instantly cause discomfort to bubble up in our own chests. We watch others pull on doors labeled “Push,” or stumble over their own feet, and feel their pain. A stranger’s flushed face can be enough to inspire sympathy, to link us to someone we didn’t even know before.

So, as mortifying as it is, maybe it’s a good thing that some of our mistakes end up in history books. Not only do future generations get the chance to learn from them, but they get to relate to them as well. There’s something so exquisite about being able to cringe and to laugh at slip-ups that happened long before any of our own. Reputation be damned — the noble, untouchable figures we learn about in school seem a lot more endearing when they are touchable. Their mistakes remind us that humans have always been, well, human.

I’m not saying that your library disturbance will end up in a future textbook, Music Menace. Just that I feel you, and that I share your wonderful embarrassment of being human.

Geraldine Ang writes the Wednesday column on human connection. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.