Is the experience of humiliation normal? Although the experience of humiliation is extremely common, it is not normal. We were born with the emotional tools not to be reduced by the power of its attack. However, if we are not raised to use the tools, or do not learn to use the tools later in life, humiliation, and its subsequent shame, are all too common in our collective experiences.
Humiliate means to be reduced to a lower position in one’s own eyes or in the eyes of others. Humiliation is meant to produce contempt towards one’s self. It is meant to mortify: subdue or deaden strength, vitality, or functioning.
Humiliation is powerful and its experience common, but it does not have to become our normal. I learned this truth years ago, even though I didn’t grasp the fullness of it until years later.
Humiliation is powerful and its experience common, but it does not have to become our normal.
A kid I played football with as a freshman in high school had two older brothers. The oldest had been drafted by the Phillies to play pro baseball after high school. The second oldest brother played D-1 football as the starting quarterback at our local university. My friend, Terry, saw our first freshmen game as his own longed-for opportunity to step onto the path to glory his brothers had run.
Terry was so excited to get onto the field at our first game that he was the first to break through the banner the cheerleaders made. Not only was he the first to break the banner, he was twenty yards ahead of the rest of us, running alone with all his might to the fifty-yard line where we would get together. He began to stumble at about the twenty-yard line. Then trying not to fall, he began to windmill another twenty yards before he fell face first, all by himself in the center of the field. All told, he fell for a long time. By the time he got up, the rest of us had arrived at the fifty-yard line.
I don’t remember much about the game, except that Terry had a good game. I know; I watched most of it from the sidelines. After the game he sat alone, not talking. I went over to him to tell him he played great. I was surprised to see that he was crying. Since we were friends, I asked him what was wrong. He said something like, “I’m just so mad. I’ve been looking forward to today since I was little. My brother was here and my parents. And we lost. I wanted it to be different.” He wiped his face with a towel and got dressed.
The next game, we played at home. He broke through the banner first again, just as excited as the game before. He didn’t fall, and we all joined him at the fifty. We won and he was glad. He played the rest of high school as a starting linebacker to no great acclaim, but he always played the same way he started that first game when we were freshmen.
Sometimes when we were all hanging out, someone would kid with him about his first game when he sprawled out on the forty-yard line. He would laugh hard as someone imitated his windmill move trying to stay on his feet.
He grasped “we” together can do more than apart, and he could laugh at his own and all of our collective clumsiness.
He came from a family that laughed together, fought together, and cried together. They also worshipped together. They even had a raccoon for a while that they had raised from a baby that hung out in their house like a pet cat.
The point is that Terry did not suffer any humiliation after falling for twenty or thirty yards all by himself in front of the crowd and the team. He used emotional tools that came from where he came from. He was unaffected by what would commonly be a humiliating experience or memory. He cried, he felt anger, he expressed sadness, he remained excited and hopeful. He grasped “we” together can do more than apart, and he could laugh at his own and all of our collective clumsiness.
He showed me normal, and he was only being himself. He felt his feelings, told the truth, and gave himself to living the process of life. These tools take us above the fray of humiliation—being controlled by it or controlling others with it, while also immersing us completely in living. We don’t change those who humiliate. We don’t change others. We just need to live normal—the way we were created as emotional and spiritual creatures.