Reflections by Jerry Webber

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What Should I Tip for a Good Humiliation?

Saint Francis of Assisi prayed for one humiliation a day.

He was not a masochist. He did not seek out suffering. He was not an out-of-touch ascetic who thought pain in and of itself united one to God.

Francis knew that humiliation and embarrassment touched something within him to which he was attached . . . some image of himself that was important to his sense of self, yet was actually unrealistic or untrue. Humiliation would strike at the inner person, the areas where he was heavily invested and highly defended, and "bring him down a notch."

Francis also knew that his band of brothers tended to idealize his life, tended to make an idol of him as their leader. He knew that their deification of him was misplaced; thus, humiliation for him was a doorway into humility. (It's no accident that "humiliation" and "humility" both derive from the same root, humus, which means soil, dirt, or earth.)

Embarrassment works the same way. A person has an image that is projected outward, the way we want others to see us. Then something happens in our life-world that suggests we are not who we thought we were, or not who we have wanted others to believe we are. Embarrassment. Red-faced, we limp toward reality.

So here's my story:

Over a week ago, I went to the lady who has been cutting my hair for about 6 years now. An immigrant from Vietnam, she and her family have made a life for themselves in the United States. Her elementary-aged daughter is often in the shop, reading books or working on coloring books. I have come to know her and her family, even through the challenges of language and cultural mores.

I'm an easy hair-cut. #3 clippers on the top, #2 on the sides. Years ago I gave up on styling my hair . . . just cut it down short, and I'll never have to see a comb or hairbrush for the rest of my days. The whole process, from getting into the barber's chair to shaking off the hair and moving on, takes about 7 minutes on a good day.

On this day, I slid into the chair and she began to pump the foot pedal to lower the chair -- this happens every time -- as low as it would go in order to #3 me evenly across the top. Only this time, when she got the chair as low as it would go, she said, "I need you to be lower in the chair."

In 6 years, I'd never needed to be lower before. But I accommodated her, scrunching down in the chair as much as possible. (You gotta get that #3 even on top, dontcha know?) Making conversation, I said -- good-naturedly, I might add -- "What happened? Did I grow taller?"

She said, "No, just fatter."

I was a little shocked. Didn't expect THAT! I mumbled something like, "Yeah, I've gained some weight," hoping we could move on to something else, like what was coming up after the commercial on "General Hospital."

She charged on. "Do you like being fat?"

"Not really."

"Does it make you uncomfortable, like when you try to sleep at night? How does it feel?"

"Uh, not very good, I guess." By this time, I'm tiny in the chair, a seven-year old could not have been hunkered down lower. "I know that I need to lose some weight," I whispered.

"You should try eating less."

The last 6 minutes, 30 seconds of the haircut went on in silence.

Then the moment of decision: Because the haircut is fairly inexpensive, I usually give her a substantial tip. So what should I do this day? A sizable tip, and a "Thanks for the humiliation"? Or -- as per usual -- puff up, say nothing, pay only for the haircut (and NOT the humiliation), and sulk home?

My friend -- and she IS my friend! -- gave me something to carry along for several days. Why did her comments feel so offensive? humiliating? embarrassing? The truth is, I've put on over 20 pounds in a relatively short period of time. I know it's a problem, and certainly the people around me know that it's a problem, but she is the first and only person to say something about it. And I know I should eat less, but I don't.

My first response to this humiliation -- it really is a MINOR humiliation on the grander scale of things -- was to eat a huge basket of onion rings that night. I showed her!

Over the next several days, though, I remembered Francis and his words about humiliation and embarrassment, about how humiliation often comes from very public assaults on our pride and ego, about how embarrassments often take our heads out of the clouds and ground us in our fundamental humanity.

The ego-self (self-interested, self-referenced, self-centered) is a ruthless dictator. Easily offended, it wants to defend its ground, to stake its selfish claims. But St. Francis knew that a small, undefended ego is very difficult to embarrass and almost impossible to humiliate. The large ego projects an image of ourselves (how we see ourselves or how we want to be seen), and when that image is shattered, we feel humiliated. But with the small ego, there is no image to protect or defend. Security and esteem do not come from outside ourselves.

So sitting in the barber's chair that Friday, I was humiliated to hear the truth. My clothing tells me that she is right. The mirror tells me that she is spot-on. I'm just not accustomed to someone coming right out with the obvious. She touched a place where I feel a little prickly (and vulnerable, and even helpless on some days). It's not that what she said was untrue or offensive, only that it struck at my large ego, my inflated sense of self, the self I want to believe in and the image I want to project to others.

How do you tip for that kind of humiliation?

I'm trying to imagine what St. Francis would do.

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