When we were in middle school, my twin brother and I rode the school bus to hell. I mean, it didn’t go to the literal hell where evil people like Hitler and Mussolini and Don Henley go (although at that age I was convinced that a lot of the kids riding on it were eventually headed there). First, it made a stop at the local public school and unloaded 97 percent of its students, then it traveled along suburban Lebanon County roads to drop off the good little boys (my brother Brandon and me) at our safe Mennonite school, where only the truly pure in heart could traipse through the doors without turning into a pillar of salt.
The bus was awful. Most people probably don’t remember their morning middle school commutes with great fondness, but we were exposed to things that Christian boys should never experience, from words like “crap” and “suck” to secular music like the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys. But the worst part was finding a seat – by the time the bus hit the stop down the road from us, Brandon and I would inevitably have to split up and fend for ourselves, a horrifying proposition for a couple of Coke-bottle glasses-wearing nerds in red sweatshirts with a picture of a hot dog bun being crushed by a giant cross. (It took me years to realize the bun was the Ten Commandments.)
Sometimes, I’d sit next to Clayton, who would tell dirty jokes that I’d pretend to laugh at. And pretend to understand: one of them involved an overprotective father who mistook his daughter’s boyfriend’s penis for a doorbell, which I thought I’d finally get when I was older but makes even less sense to me now that I know what doing sex at people is all about. Anyway, other times I’d sit beside Ray, a quiet kid with a lisp and a shaved head, until he told me that he was “partially gay, like Little Richard” (his words) and I realized a saint like me shouldn’t be anywhere near him. The place I feared to sit, though – even when my twin was right by my side – was anywhere near Justin, who would mercilessly slap, belittle, and taunt anyone and everyone who caught his eye from atop his throne at the very back of the bus.
I was already miserable one cold rainy morning (I might be making that detail up, but I certainly don’t remember riding the bus to school on a warm sunny morning) when Brandon and I won the lottery, in the way that Mrs. Hutchinson did in Shirley Jackson’s story. In a matter of about three seconds after sitting down, Justin’s hateful gaze fell through sandy blond hair on us Wonder Twins.
I don’t know what instigated the confrontation, although Justin never needed a reason; Brandon and I were big fans of Christian rock at that point, so we probably stood up for what we believed in by reciting a Bible verse or the chorus of “Not Ashamed” by the Newsboys, tactics which have never failed to open even the stoniest heart’s door to the life-changing power of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by the sacrifice of his shed blood, and all God’s people said “amen.” The one thing that I remember – I am positive this happened, verbatim, because his words have been ringing in my ears for the better part of two decades – is that the showdown ended with the worst insult I have ever heard in my entire life, even up to this day:
“I get my clothes at Tommy Hilfiger! Where do you dorks buy your clothes – El Crapo?”
Look, our parents always did the very best they could, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the way they raised us. We certainly didn’t lack love and support, but we didn’t have a whole lot extra in the way of disposable income. That meant things like very little eating out (I mean, we begged for our sixth birthday to be at McDonald’s, which it was) and iron-on patches on ripped jeans (until mom discovered we’d just rip ‘em off during school). It wasn’t poverty, but there were also few articles of clothing that didn’t say Faded Glory on them. (Side note: A few years ago, I was joking about Juicy Juice flavors all being the same, and asked my mom why she’d always buy it if she knew we didn’t like it much. She said, matter-of-factly, “We had WIC, so that’s what we could get.” God bless welfare.)
If I were older, maybe I’d have been clever enough to come up with a retort to Justin’s disgusting insult. But I went to a Christian school, where cleverness was a sin, so I honestly didn’t learn about it until about two years ago. Instead, I sat down in my seat, put my head between my knees, and let the white hot tears fog up my glasses and roll down my debased cheeks to the filthy, rubber-lined, kid-sticky floor of the bus.
It’s always interesting to me how “humility” and “humiliation” have the same Latin root, or so I assumed until 15 seconds ago when I checked to confirm my hunch on dictionary.com. We put a lot of stock in this idea that being humble is a paragon of virtue – we get enraged when our leaders or entertainers display the slightest inability to act like normal people – but we avoid being humiliated at all costs. Some of us have dreams about it: the classic in-front-of-class-in-your-underwear is a total trope of how shame and ignominy feel. Some pastors, when they talk about Jesus on the cross, go out of their way to point out the sheer embarrassment of the ordeal: “And do you know what? He wasn’t wearing a white linen like we see in the pictures – he was totally naked up there! How do you think that felt, God being naked up on that cross?!” Because this, truly, was Jesus’ chief concern.
I think we elevate humbleness but avoid humiliation because being humble essentially doesn’t cost anything. “He was born to humble roots,” we say, as if it wasn’t a complete accident of circumstance. Humiliation, on the other hand, is extremely costly, because it forces us to grapple with the very essence of who we are, or at least what we believe ourselves to be. It’s not pretending or thinking that we’re lower than we really are – I’ve never seen “Undercover Boss,” but isn’t that the central conceit of the show? (Correct me if I’m wrong. I’m never going to watch it.) Humiliation forces us to grapple with our very worst fears about ourselves – misgivings, inadequacies, pain, all hallmarks. No one would willingly choose to be humiliated; we can’t bring ourselves to the disgrace of the latter, so we settle for the former, because perfect is the enemy of good, and we’re all incapable of perfection anyway.
Humiliation is an aggression entirely perpetrated on people by other people. One time, the long part came off my trombone during a school band performance (yes, I did play trombone; I do forget what the long tube part is called; and this did happen), but it wasn’t a twisted piece of brass that embarrassed me – it was the people who laughed at a (hilarious, in hindsight) mistake I made. I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy trying to figure out why I am the way I am, and it seems like all roads lead back to the same painful, humiliating places: those terrible feelings of inadequacy and unimportance, voices telling me I’m not good enough or smart enough or handsome enough, and trusting in my biggest fear of all: that I don’t have value.
Alcoholism was just one of the unfortunate results of my myriad attempts to bury this desperation. I’ve previously discussed some of the results of that failed experiment. My desire for affirmation, to be loved and cared for, to be something other than what I was, caused me to replace myself with someone other than who I was. In his book Abba’s Child, the late Brennan Manning describes this false self as “the impostor”:
The impostor prompts us to attach importance to what has no importance, clothing with a false glitter what is least substantial and turning us away from what is real. The false self causes us to live in a world of illusion. The impostor is a liar. … My false self staggers into each day with an insatiable appetite for affirmation. With my cardboard façade intact, I enter a roomful of people preceded by a muted trumpet: “Here I am,” whereas my true self hidden with Christ in God cries, “Oh, there you are!” … His narcissism excludes others. Incapable of intimacy with self and out of touch with his feelings, intuitions, and insights, the impostor is insensitive to the moods, needs, and dreams of others.
“Hurt people hurt people,” the adage goes, and I’ve certainly done my share of that.
Like the time my wife made a huge effort to look pretty on one of our dating anniversaries, but I was too busy paying attention to an iPhone app and my rum and Coke to tell her how beautiful she looked, and how important she was and would forever be to me.
Or the time I angrily blasted my coworker for something that I later found out she didn’t do, making fun of her in front of my colleagues, then turned around to see that she had heard every word I said, and so had her family who came in to tour her office.
Or the time I was in college and my little brother wanted to play video games with me, but I wanted to hang out with a girlfriend who’d end up breaking up with me a couple months later, so I called him names until he slowly walked upstairs to his bedroom, sniffling, muttering “I just wanted to be with you.”
Or even that time when I was a kid on the bus and I watched a little boy my age with a shaved head and a lisp, who considered me a friend, sobbing a few rows down – the last time I ever remember seeing him – because I didn’t want to sit with him after finding out he was gay.
Confronting my failures isn’t always fun, but I’d rather deal with the pain than continue to feed the impostor. And some humiliations even come with significant upsides. The last time I felt completely embarrassed was because of the way a girl reacted when I jokingly proposed to her with a plastic green wedding ring I got from a quarter machine at a bar. She wasn’t having any of it on our second date, either. By the time I proposed to her with a Ring Pop the following summer, I think she was warming up to me, especially when I pulled the engagement ring out of my pocket moments later.
She said “yes,” by the way. Even though I was wearing clothes I purchased from El Crapo.
To be honest, I’m kind of glad I’m actually reconciling this humility-humiliation thing, because it has made me more aware of the “moods, needs, and dreams of others,” as Manning put it. I’m not wishing for it, of course, but I’d take it over “he came from humble roots” any day: not only am I not a consequence of circumstance, I’m also not the victim of my missteps. I don’t have to be a success or get constant affirmation to know that, as God says in the book of Jeremiah, “you are loved with an everlasting love” – and I promised I wouldn’t make this another stupid religious blog, so I think I’ll leave it at that.