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, seven, and David, four—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 30 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 past emotions. I can remember a time in my life when I was burdened by depression, but I 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 embarrassment, I can't remember the incident without wanting to crawl under my desk. Embarrassment bursts forth anew at the moment the memory appears, bursts like lemon meringue pie in the face. It's a nearly intolerable feeling, a cousin to outright pain.
I think the reason embarrassment is ever fresh is that it jars our self-image in a way other flaws do not. Embarrassment is the flag flown from the ramparts of pride. For quite a while I didn't get this. I thought embarrassment 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 is rather the phenomenon we spot so easily in others: sorry about being caught, sorry about being revealed as thoughtless, lazy, greedy, or rude.
Yes, above all, sorry about having flaws revealed. "Oh, no," Embarrassment 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 the fact that I'm a fool is not exactly classified information. 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 embarrassment in my Bible concordance. (Shame is there, but shame has a slightly different meaning, associated with dishonor and military loss.) There are certainly biblical instances of it, though, one of the most familiar being the fear of embarrassment that caused Herod to execute John the Baptist. He had made a heedless, drunken promise to his stepdaughter, 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 embarrassment. When the father of Origen, a third-century theologian, was arrested for being a Christian, the son—then only 17—was aflame with the desire to follow him and share in glorious martyrdom. His mother pleaded with him not to go, but the headstrong boy did not want to listen to reason. 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 he was unable to volunteer for martyrdom.
What 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 sped up his arrest and imprisonment, but it was a step he was unwilling to take.
The embarrassing 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 will 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 will 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.
By Frederica Mathewes-Green, a frequent commentator on National Public Radio.
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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