Saturday, November 10, 2012

A little humiliation is good for the soul

I was on my old bike, pulling a trailer heavy with child and labouring uphill when I saw that the council in its wisdom was watering the bike path. Eight rotating sprinklers ensured that two sections of path were being soaked at any given time; yet a sudden veer into the grass would take me straight into another line of sprinklers. The only way was through. I tried to time it to wet only my calves but misjudged a sprinkler’s rotation, and was promptly sodden from my crotch to my knees. I had to ride home looking for all the world like I had wet my pants; even my underwear was soaked.

Some mystics suggest that a little humiliation is good for the soul. It reminds one of one’s place in the world; it punctures one’s pretensions; it keeps one humble.

Lucky me – I am humiliated all the time. Like so many parents, I have generally relied on young children for my daily dose. It began at childbirth – the little poo that came out with the baby – and was quickly matched by the baby’s far greater poonami in a public place that shot up to her shoulder blades and smeared over my hands as I discreetly tried to clean it up. There were so many little episodes: the pregnant woman’s desperate need to pee seventeen times in an hour and the toddler who absolutely must piddle in the gutter right now; the mother screaming at the three year old and the three year old screaming at the supermarket. My oldest daughter was two when she first asked me to ‘dress more stylish’; how humiliating, to be chastened for one’s fashion sense by a person who had recently dangled her plaits in the toilet. I might have looked more chic had I not gone out so many times with a smear of snot on my black-clad shoulder, unseen until I left the house.

It reminds me of a local mum, when she and her husband first left the kids overnight. For the first time in years, she wore a strapless dress and dined at an elegant restaurant with friends. Halfway through the meal, someone pointed to her bare shoulder and asked, ‘What’s that?’. She turned and discovered a parting gift from her children: a louse. Humiliations galore!

Of course, these are only the physical embarrassments that children bring. More toxic, there have been times when my behaviour has been so abominable that I have felt sick with shame. My frustration, my filthy temper, even my violence – and always over the little things – have shown me how frail I am. Without enough sleep, without food at very regular intervals, without a bit of peace and quiet, I am absolutely unbearable – and without children, I might not have learned just how low I can go.

So I am grateful to the kids for the small humiliations, and the ways they have shown me up; and I am grateful to have learned that despite it all, I am loved. Yet the kids are growing up. I get more sleep, less snot and have better learned how to regulate my mood; and the humiliations seem to have dwindled. Am I at risk of being overtaken by pride?

On reflection, whether it’s wobbling on my bicycle and falling in slow motion into the gutter (my six year old laughed so hard she was nearly sick); or eating a rare candy, losing my temper, and having my eight year old ask quietly, ‘Have you eaten sugar?’ – well, I find I am quite able to humiliate myself without the children’s help.

It takes very little to tip me over: a steep camber on a road, a teaspoon of sugar on an empty stomach; clearly, I am unbalanced. It’s embarrassing, but what’s a girl to do other than look in the mirror, recognise the fact, and sigh?

A good humiliation used to make me feel physically ill; I suspect it was because it was so challenging. I had a puffed up ego but was empty inside; to burst the bubble was terrifying. These days, I feel more grounded, more humble. I am beginning to know who I am. I’m no giant, just a little person pottering along close to the earth; I have less distance to fall.

And so humiliation is losing its power over me. These days, I tend to see it as an opportunity. If I am humiliated by my own behaviour, it’s a chance to apologise, and learn. If I am humiliated by something that happened to me, it’s a chance to let go of my sense of self-importance: who am I that I can’t look silly sometimes? Often, I even find myself laughing.

A humble person can’t really be humiliated; and by taking the humiliations on board and letting them break through my pretences bit by bit, I am slowly getting there. Even wet from the crotch down, I wasn’t really embarrassed; instead, I imagined with delight the gales of laughter as I would tell a particular friend. So I think the ancients were right: a little humiliation has been good for my soul.

I was out walking, pondering these things and thinking I should write them down, when a bird anointed my forehead with crap.

(Disclaimer: Of course, this doesn’t mean that humiliating others is ever okay, nor does it mean that one should remain in an abusive relationship where humiliation is the norm. On the one hand, the world provides plenty of humiliating moments without our help; on the other, we do not need to seek out humiliations in some kind of cosmic self-flagellation. But those that do come our way... well, we can use them.)

The Princess Bride (Deluxe Edition) "Humiliations galore!"

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