The price of shame is seventeen years. Seventeen years is the interval between when Monica Lewinsky’s affair with former US president Bill Clinton became public and when she received a standing ovation at the end of her TED talk. The period following the disclosure was a time of intense disgrace for all parties involved, Mr and Mrs Clinton and Miss Lewinsky.
The media rehashed the stories to the point that the name Clinton is perhaps indelibly linked to Lewinsky and vice versa. Hilary Clinton’s political career, Bill Clinton’s public speaking and humanitarian work, and now Monica Lewinsky’s advocacy for victims of online humiliation and harassment, notwithstanding.
Seventeen is the number of years it took for Lewinsky to mount a public podium and declare, “it’s time . . . to stop living a life of opprobrium; and time to take back my narrative.” And so far, over 2.5 million people have viewed her talk.
Why did the TED audience rise and clap at the end of her talk? One reason may be her opening question, which hit home: “Can I see a show of hands of anyone here who didn’t make a mistake or do something they regretted at twenty-two?”
I am reminded of a meeting I attended where the preacher, speaking on the importance of a wholesome thought life, asked how many people would like the contents of the thinking they had done the previous day to be displayed on a billboard in Times Square. Every hand remained down, including that of the preacher.
She admits that she deeply regrets what happened. Whether the affair was for love, in love, through love, or about love, affix any preposition to love, and we still say wrong, wrong, wrong. However, by throwing stones at her, the ensuing spectacle of derision that has continued, with radioactive endurance, for a decade and a half, have we become like the people who brought only the woman caught in adultery to Jesus?
As I watched Bill Clinton reinvent himself over the years and become to my mind, charismatic Bill, the notion that it is a man’s world concretized. Yes, I can only imagine the PR machine behind such a powerful figure. But we live in a male-dominated culture, a patriarchy, where men are hailed for sexual adventures and women are shamed.
The positive press Lewinsky has recently received indicates that perhaps after seventeen years, we have become magnanimous—okay Monica; you may go and sin no more. But being human, suspicious, and armed with conspiracy theories, we point two fingers to our eyes and then at her: We. Are. Watching. You.
Talking openly about shame, especially the modern cyber variety, how it can cripple, destroy, and lead to suicide is good. Broadening the conversation to include honour killings that assuage family shame is welcome. We do well to adopt a more empathetic response to public shaming.
And yet humiliation, a synonym for shame, in small doses, can be a wake-up call. A few years ago, I finally scored an interview that I’d been angling for. It couldn’t have been scheduled at a worse time. Exhausted from travelling, I slept with my notes (which I was reviewing for the first time), on my chest Sunday night. In the flurry of Monday morning, I had no time to revise and little time to get to the venue.
I hoped to bluff my way through. I could not. I read the impatience in the interviewer’s hands as he flicked through my résumé while listening to me. I perceived his thoughts, rubbish; I cannot believe she came highly recommended. From that moment on, the ability to think on my feet deserted me. Shame made me forget things I knew.
The memory of that humiliation goads me to over prepare for interviews. I have other memories, secrets, too painful to share, which still stain my cheeks red. My shame has filled my compassion vaults, so now I have compassion to spare for others.
Although you and I haven’t endured public humiliation, we are acquainted with shame and its incapacitating effect. There exists the looming danger of a single story if we remain paralyzed. Not of shame, but of regret being our single story.
I think that to change any narrative from shame to glory, we must do time. No, not seventeen years, but a season away from the ‘limelight,’ burrowing underground to learn lessons from humiliation. In time, we may re-emerge with fresh purpose and tell inspiring new stories.
©Timi Yeseibo 2015
Photo credit: Nile/pixabay.com/en/hourglass-time-hours-sand-clock-620397
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