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Embarassment's Perpetual Blush

By Frederica Matthewes-Green

As I saw my children swept up into the night sky I knew I had made a terrible mistake. I held the baby in my arms, but the two older ones—Megan, 7, and David, 4—were locked behind the bar of a ferris wheel in a shopping-center carnival. They had begged and clamored until I agreed to let them board the contraption but now, as they rose into the night, they panicked and began to scream. David’s little legs were kicking as he skidded sideways on the slick metal seat. I saw how easily he could slip beneath the narrow bar and fall to the asphalt below.

That was more than a dozen years ago. One revolution of the ferris wheel was more than enough for my kids, thank you, and within thirty seconds they were safely on the ground beside me again, breathing hard and shaking.

I think this was the most terrifying moment in my life as a parent. Nothing else even comes close. Yet looking back now, I can remember it without feeling frightened at all.

It’s a funny thing about emotions in the past. I can remember a time in my life when I was burdened by depression, but can view it now without feeling sad. I can remember being furious with someone, yet without once again growing angry. I can even remember having a crush on Ringo, and I have *no* idea what that was about.

But when it comes to embarassment I can’t remember the incident without wanting to crawl under my desk. Embarassment bursts forth anew at the moment the memory appears, bursts like lemon merigue pie in the face. It’s a nearly intolerable feeling, a cousin to outright pain.

I think the reason embarassment is ever-fresh is that it points out a facet of ourselves we wish weren’t true. We can think "Sometimes I get angry" or "Sometimes I’m sad" more placidly than we can think "Sometimes I do incredibly stupid things." It jars our self-image in a way other flaws do not. What keeps embarassment painfully fresh is the discontinuity between our self-image and the self disclosed when we did the aforementioned incredibly stupid thing.

In short, embarassment is the flag flown from the ramparts of pride.

For quite awhile I didn’t get this. I thought embarassment was the opposite, an emblem of humility, perhaps even evidence of repentance. The sequence seemed to be, I remember doing something stupid, and I’m agonizingly sorry I did it. But the sorrow is not actually that of remorse. It’s rather the phenomenon we spot so easily in others: sorry-about-being-caught, sorry about being revealed as thoughtless, lazy, greedy, or rude.

Sorry about having flaws *revealed.* "Oh, no," Embarassment whispers, "People will think…" People are going to think I’m such a fool.

Well, the truth is, I *am* a fool. I just did the stupid thing in question, didn’t I? What do I need, a certificate?

And that fact that I’m a fool is not exactly a classified U.S. Government secret. God certainly knows it, and the Devil does too (and relies on it). It’s a pretty good bet that everyone who knows me knows it as well. Apparently the only person left out of this information loop is me.

I don’t find the word "embarassment" in my concordance; "shame" is there, but shame has a slightly different meaning, associated with dishonor and military loss. The concept occurs, of course, one of the most familiar examples being the embarassment which caused Herod to execute John the Baptist. He had done a foolish, drunken thing in making a heedless promise to his step-daughter, but "because of his oaths and his guests" he followed through.

One of my favorite stories from the early church describes a positive use of embarassment. When the father of Origen, a third-century theologian, was arrested for being a Christian, the son—then only seventeen—was aflame with the desire to follow him and share in glorious martyrdom. His mother pleaded with him not to go; the early church forebade actively seeking martyrdom. But the headstrong boy didn’t want to listen to reason.

So his quick-thinking mother did what she could. She hid his clothes.

Though Origen stormed and protested, she wouldn’t reveal where they were hidden. He couldn’t leave the house, and so was unable to volunteer for martyrdom.

The thing that strikes me about this story is that Origen was brave enough to be martyred, but not brave enough to go outside naked. Stepping outside sans clothing would have merely served to speed up his arrest and imprisonment, but it was a step he was unwilling to take. Martyrdom, yes; embarassment, no.

The embarassing moments in our lives, and the still-painful memories of those moments, give us a bracing opportunity to "see ourselves as others see us." They knock down walls of pride like a bulldozer. I wonder if in heaven there will be a "Funniest Home Videos" night, where we get to see ourselves at our most absurd. Then, with all the books opened and every secret known, there’ll be no more reason to cling to scraps of false dignity. The truth is out: we’re fallen like clowns in mud, and we’re beloved and saved by Christ’s glory. Watching those moments again in the company of all who love us, we’ll hear a rising chuckle of mirth. We won’t want to cringe under a twist of pain anymore; instead, we’ll lead them all in a big belly laugh.


This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, July 14, 1997, and was selected for Best Christian Writing, 1998. Reprinted with author's permission.