Living Beyond Embarrassment
My spouse, Elaine, lives with the belief that there is nothing that can’t be improved with duct tape. She is right — about 10% of the time! It is a running joke for us. Examples abound: screen doors, chipped flower-pot, refrigerator shelf corners, or uneven table legs can all be “fixed” with duct tape. Occasionally when there are efforts to repair a clock or extend a hotdog roasting stick, I confess to being embarrassed. Mostly it is fun discovering the duct-tape-inventions of my frugal spouse.
Such small embarrassments are more than outweighed by my love for her and knowledge that she has many more reasons to be embarrassed by me. My shirt may carry too many spots from spilled food from recent meals, I may greet someone by the wrong name, or ask for a comment to be repeated the seventh time, when I can’t acknowledge my hearing loss, I know I am an embarrassment for her. Much more so than a little duct tape here and there could fix. Elaine deserves the “most embarrassed by a spouse” award.
Embarrassment is on my mind recently. Serious embarrassment, not the sort easily ignored, laughed away, or mended by duct tape. We all, or most of us, know about embarrassment. I think of the big institutions in my life — my nation, my state, my church. I was helped by Neil Gross who writes, “Americans embarrassed by President Trump are experiencing vicarious embarrassment not for him but for the country. They’re embarrassed that, with Mr. Trump as president, the country’s claims to virtue, leadership and moral standing ring hollow.” (see Neil Gross, New York Times, 6-16-17, Does Trump Embarrass You?)
It is not the shameless pettiness, the vile language, or the ill-considered tweets that are most embarrassing. As Gross names it, it is an embarrassment related to our national standing in the world. We are all painted by the brush of Donald’s obvious ignorance and intolerance. He is our representative, our national voice and when he behaves like a six-year-old, each American loses something precious, something immeasurable for our nation and world.
Week after week there are multiple examples of Mr. Trump’s lack of knowledge, non-existent curiosity, or his disregard for basic decency. I am embarrassed “early and often” as they say. However, methinks the behavior of this seventy-one year old adolescent is not the core issue. We have not been carried to this current sad emotional valley by Donald Trump alone. There are multiple reasons we have arrived at this place.
Congressman Steve Scalise was shot last week while practicing for the annual baseball game between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Scalise was apparently chosen because he is in the Republican leadership in Congress. A deeply troubled man from Belleville, Illinois, is said to have shot Scalise and others out of his anger over the political direction of our nation. What tragic madness!
Fortunately, congressional leaders responded with calls to lower the rhetoric, end the vitriol and display our national unity, despite our political differences. Good. This is a much-needed message. However, our problem is not just mean-spirited language and the damage it produces. Our nation didn’t arrive at this place suddenly. The ugliness and embarrassment didn’t begin in 2016. Year after year, we have lived with denials and multiple embarrassments. We have considerable makeup work to do to regain our sense of national pride.
Sadly, the horrible scenes played out on the practice field in Alexandria, Virginia last week were the 154th mass shooting in the United States in 2017. Over 6,800 persons have died due to gun violence in the first six months of 2017 (see: U.S. gun violence in 2017). Might it be that we should have acknowledged this reality and our embarrassment sooner? Might it be we should be persistent and ever more diligent in demanding change? I do not claim that stronger gun laws would have prevented the shooting on that Virginia baseball field. We will never know. However, I am convinced that having restrictions on who can purchase guns, especially assault weapons, would have reduced the number of mass shootings this past year. This is our continuing embarrassment.
The fact that our nation did not take strong measures against gun violence following the deaths of twenty children and six adults murdered at Sandy Hook School in Newton Connecticut, just prior to Christmas in 2012, makes it clear that our problems, our embarrassments, go much deeper than the divisive actions and language of Donald Trump.
Years ago, former Speaker of the House, Richard Gephardt, told me he believed that “politics is our best substitute for violence.” I agree, mostly. Still, when four out of every five adults in the nation want stronger gun laws and yet nothing is done we have a problem. We should all be embarrassed. Whether it is the vast sums of money now distorting our elections, the abuses of social media, the use of fake news, voter suppression, gerrymandering or all of the above, we should be embarrassed.
What can we do? Let me suggest four things:
- Take personal responsibility. Let’s not get stuck in our embarrassment and pretend these problems will be resolved by others. This is our nation. In large and small ways we need to stay active in seeking leaders and institutions that exemplify the best of who we are as a people. Now is not the time to retreat into safe enclaves.
- Plan and act locally. Find ways you can make a difference where you live. For some this will mean working with civil institutions and people of good will nearby. Others of us live in what might be called “citizenship deserts.” In Indiana, my home state, there is a selfishness and meanness (even in our churches) that makes working on the behalf of the poor or seeking environmental holiness difficult. In places like this our work is more basic. We need to build new networks of courage and encourage small communities of care to thrive and expand.
- Speak on the behalf of the poor, the vulnerable, the stranger. Perhaps it is to end gun violence, perhaps to welcome the immigrant, perhaps in support of Medicaid coverage for the poor, perhaps to protect our threatened environment.
- Act now. Channel that embarrassment. Do something today. It may be as simple as calling your congressman, your mayor or governor. Support measures that build up rather than destroy our civil society.
Drop the duct tape and join in helping our nation move past our many current places of embarrassment.