We orchestrate most of our lives around avoiding embarrassment. But what if, in doing so, we orchestrate the only thing ultimately worse than embarrassment?
I bit into a sandwich and a large part of my top front tooth broke off. My tongue found the new gap in my teeth, and then I found a mirror to survey the damage. I looked like I had just played in the Stanley Cup. And lost.
It was a Friday evening and I promptly cancelled all my weekend plans except a meeting with a small group of friends on Sunday. I thought it would be embarrassing to see anyone else. Yet, as the Sunday gathering approached, my fear of embarrassment began to grow anyway:
What will they think of me?
What will they say about me?
I felt like I was in middle school, hiding my first pimple.
Sunday came and the group came together and, as time passed and no one mentioned the gap in my teeth, I became increasingly anxious. Finally, I blurted out, “Yeah, so my tooth fell off this weekend.” They looked at me and collectively responded with, “Oh, we hadn’t even noticed.”
I think they did notice. They were one of the nicest groups of people I’ve ever known, and I think they were trying to save me from the very embarrassment I feared. Yet, although that weekend was six years ago, I still recall the moment in which no one noticed.
Because the only thing worse than being noticed and embarrassed is not being noticed at all.
Why Kids Want to be Famous
Every year, formal surveys are conducted in which young people are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For decades, the top two responses were teacher and doctor. However, in the last several years, those vocations have been replaced at the top by a new answer:
Many people lament the narcissism of Generation YouTube, but the truth is, what appears narcissistic on the surface always arises from a secret sense of lacking—what looks like grandiosity is always bubbling up from a deep well of self-doubt. So, when young people primarily desire fame, they are indirectly expressing their fear of not being noticed or known by anyone.
And young people aren’t alone, are they? For the most part, teenagers have fled Facebook for SnapChat and Tinder because their parents have hijacked Facebook. Of course, adults don’t share as many selfies as young people, but isn’t the content we share simply a more cleverly disguised self-portrait? And when we post something to Facebook, and no one seems to care, don’t we feel it deep in our hearts? Don’t we feel unnoticed? Don’t we feel unseen?
Don’t we, too, feel like a chipped tooth no one is paying attention to?
The Gift of Being Embarrassed
Six years after my tooth cracked, I felt like my immune system had cracked. I had endured three consecutive weeks of illness: strep throat followed by influenza. I’d gotten sick, in part, because life is messy and sick happens. But, deep down, I also knew my immune system had been compromised by long hours of work and short hours of sleep.
Laying in bed, I texted a friend to let him know how slowly my recovery was going. I think I was hoping for sympathy and encouragement, but I got something completely unexpected.
I got embarrassed.
My friend knew my wife and I had tried to ignore our illness and go on spring break anyway. He knew we had finally succumbed to fatigue and turned the car around. He knew I was being stubborn and refusing to learn the lesson this suffering was trying to teach me.
Eyes half-closed, I heard the chirp of an incoming text message. I reached for the phone and read his reply. It went something like this: Is there a pill you can take to reduce your achievement drive by 50%? You need to slow down, because I love you and want you to not be dead from a heart attack at age 50.
He called me out. He saw through my tireless work ethic and saw it for what it was: an overactive achievement drive arising out of a tireless sense of insecurity. He let me know: I notice you enough to see the chips on who you are.
I suddenly felt embarrassed. And, at the same time, I suddenly felt less alone.
What If We UnCreated Our Loneliness?
We lament a world in which true personal connection is increasingly difficult. But what if the power to connect is always in our hands and in our hearts? And what if we are sabotaging ourselves? What if, in our effort to orchestrate completely unembarrassed lives, we hide ourselves away until we go unnoticed altogether?
What if we create our own loneliness?
And what if we can uncreate it?
By allowing ourselves to be truly seen. By bravely smiling wide and allowing the world to see our cracks and our fault lines. By stepping into embarrassment instead of running away from it.
And what would happen if we took those first steps with a trusted friend—a friend or lover or spouse or sibling or parent or therapist? A friend who will not see us for our mess but through our mess, who will see our actual goodness in the gaps between all of our broken attempts to prove ourselves good, who will see us for the lovely person we are—chipped and cracked but coming together again.
What would happen? We’d feel a little embarrassed. And we’d feel deeply noticed and blessedly connected.
We’re all worthy of being famous.
In at least one person’s eyes.
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