by Sam Buntz
George Orwell once claimed that 75% of waking male life was comprised of humiliation. This was a fair, perhaps even conservative estimate. Now, I’m not an expert, and can’t claim to know much about the general rate of female humiliation—can’t say whether the bucket of pig’s blood dumped on Carrie’s head is at all representative. But I do think that male humiliation is marked by its frequently public and dramatic nature. It’s an event.
I can offer an example from my own life. Fortunately, this isn’t even remotely tear-jerking and not in any way a plea for sympathy. It’s definitely pathetic, but hopefully in a more or less comic mode; it’s not nearly the most humiliating experience I’ve ever had, for one thing, and I’m not engaging in any emotional striptease by relating it. This isn’t some sob story I wish I could tell Oprah. But I think it’s archetypal enough to offer admirable, illustrative service.
In tenth grade, I joined the track team—or, I guess, to be technical, the field team. I was supposed to be learning how to throw the shot-put and the discus, but I was a pretty low-priority team member, and never officially competed in either event. I was on the B team, possibly the C team of shot-put-ers and discus-ers. At one point, my parents bought me a shot-put and a discus so I could practice at home, but the discus mysteriously vanished after I left it outside. Given that we were living in a fairly rural area, I have no idea what happened to it. Coyotes got it.
Anyway, we were on the bus one afternoon, headed to a meet. The track coach turned around in his seat—I was right behind him—and asked me what I was going to be doing today, and I admitted that I had no idea. I definitely hadn’t been singled out to participate in shot-put or discus. He made it clear that I needed to do something, and volunteered me for the 800m. I was immediately apprehensive, but had to agree, despite having engaged in no running since I joined the team.
I got lapped—severely. Everyone else finished and I still needed to make one more circuit around the track (you only have to run around twice; that’s how the 800m works). The entire girls’ track team actually cheered me on as I made my final lonely, out-of-shape lap—which was the worst part, of course. And then at the next meet, I had to do it again, and the exact same thing happened, with the girls’ team offering their doubtful cries of “You can do it!” once more. It was even worse with repetition…. But my mom knew the track coach, and actually asked him, politely, not to make me participate in the 800m again—only the shot and disk if I ever got good enough. None of the other non-competing shot and disk scrubs were being forced to do anything, ever, after all… He obliged. (Having your mom bail you out of problems is another form of humiliation too, in a way, though not a public way, thank God. But I was just grateful).
I distrust any guy who doesn’t have a battery of similar experiences. I’m not sure to what extent you can really grasp the horror of existence without a hundred or so dips into the font of undiluted humiliation. Some people are naturally empathetic, but most of us—especially me—require a series of shocks in order to awaken or re-awaken the instinct. In studying weird religious movements, I’ve heard more than one cult leader (Manson, for instance) claim that panic is the purest experience, since it provokes one into a state of sharp awareness. This is a thoroughly debauched parody of mysticism and enlightenment, obviously—but I would say that, applied to humiliation (closely related to panic) it has a certain truth to it. We need to be successively pricked (or flogged) into consciousness. A cult leader is an unnecessary and completely faulty aid, though, since existence itself is sufficient to do the trick.
When I was making that last lap, I could perceive myself from a second vantage point. In T.S. Eliot’s words, “I assumed a double part.” Mercifully, life let me split my consciousness and function not just as the person being humiliated, but as a spectator to my own defeat. So, I wasn’t wholly present in my gauntlet—I also could look at my experience and myself impersonally, staring from the stands and curiously considering the isolated person presently being ground down by fate and casual human indifference. Not to lavish myself with praise, but I think this was an accomplishment. It was an infinitely more vital and significant experience than winning the 800m would’ve been, and being a bashful adherent of magical thinking, I’m sure that’s why it happened. In retrospect, I’m completely glad that it did, along with all the other, hopefully forever-unwritten humiliations. (At least, I’m glad in theory).
Because of the accumulation of these various shocks, I think I can look at people making fools of themselves, or getting stoned and shamed, with a look of real empathy. What they’re going through might be way worse than anything I’ve experienced—they might be an Iraqi family surrounded by ISIS troops on Mount Sinjar—but I think my deep sense of its terrible loneliness and wrongness is pretty genuine. I think I really can, to some degree, understand what a eunuch or someone who’s just received a pink slip, and needs to march out to the parking lot with their stapler and “World’s Best Aunt” coffee mug in a cardboard box, might be going through. At least, I want to understand, which is more than half the battle. And the battle is to ameliorate human suffering—at least, the forms of suffering that are completely pointless and wasteful. (There are necessary and unnecessary forms of suffering). However, as a cautionary note, successive experiences of humiliation can breed the character of a Hitler as well as a Gandhi. It can sting one into consciousness, or drive one in the direction of consuming resentment.
If human indifference—as much as human malice—can cause humiliation, it can also offer a mild balm. You take consolation in the fact that your public humiliations probably don’t stick with people as much as they stick with you. Of course, some malicious people might latch on to them, especially when you’re in school—but it’ll fade from their memories too, most likely. Our peak moments and profound defeats always mean far less to other people, who are mainly consumed by their own problems, than they do to us. You might be nervous when giving a speech at a charity pancake breakfast, concerned about how your delicate nuances of sound and sense will be received, while most of your auditors are just hungry and waiting for you to shut up so the flapjacks can arrive. Only in rare cases will these humiliations really come to define you in other people’s minds for more than a decade to come (like Howard Dean yelling “Yaaaaaaahhh!”).
Summing things up, W.H. Auden wrote a great poem about the way suffering happens, as observed in Brueghel’s painting of the fall of Icarus:
“…everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”