I have always thought that the feeling of embarrassment is one of the worst we experience as humans. Physical pain is terrible, but once it is gone, the memory gets hazy. Romantic pain is rough, but a broken heart can be fixed by a new love. But embarrassment, for whatever reason, likes to lie dormant and return at odd times in fully rendered, high definition flashbacks. Dave Barry wrote brilliantly about this, and I am not trying to steal his gig, but it bears thinking about. I can’t remember what it felt like when I broke my collar bone. I can remember EXACTLY what it felt like when I mispronounced the word “dénouement” in a high level writing class in college.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately because of my daughter. She is exceptionally cute and does exceptionally cute things on a regular basis. And we laugh. And she gets a little look of terror on her face and says, “Why laughing?!?!” We assure her that it is because she is cute and then she is fine. But it is obvious that she is afraid we may be laughing at her. I remember this feeling from my younger years as well. Part of it is wanting to be in on the joke. A lot of it is not wanting to be the joke.
Why? It makes sense to remember physical pain so we don’t repeat it. And we’re not very good at that. It makes sense to remember the mistakes we made in love. Why does it make sense to remember the things that happened, that we had no control over, that made us feel worthless and like the whole world was laughing at us. We can’t prevent it. I don’t believe in God, so I doubt he’s getting his jollies.
I thought about this a lot last night. Yes, these are the kinds of things I think about at night. Pretty exciting. Anyhow, I think I have come up with the answer. Humans are pack animals. We don’t necessarily act like it anymore. Or we do. Depending on how you look at it. But the wiring is there, regardless. And in an animal pack, the worst thing you can possibly do is to stand out for the wrong reasons. Strongest? Good. Smartest? Good. Most likely to trip and fall in the river? Liability.
So, if you look at in this context, it makes total sense that my brain will never let me forget that I wore what I thought was a cool Ocean Pacific shirt to elementary school. I think it was my Mom’s. It WAS a cool shirt. I would wear it now. I don’t embarrass too easily anymore. And I have no idea what little kid knew that men’s and women’s shirts button on different sides. But one did. And I was mortified. And I remember it like it is a movie being played for me. Why? Because, on that day, and many others to come, I was not one of the pack. I was the one that the pack laughed at. I brought the pack together with my foolishness. They felt better than me. That bonded them. And I was marked.
Someday, I will be old and won’t remember my dog’s name (I don’t have a dog, but I’m sure I will be convinced that I did). All those embarrassments will be gone. I might miss them. I will be pushed out of the pack for other reasons. I thought about that, too. And then I fell asleep.