MUSICAL MUSINGS: This Is Humiliating!

By Scott Rieker

Director, Emerson Choir

Public humiliation has been considered an effective means of punishing people since time immemorial, and most forms of punishment include an element of shame. Society has created constructs that make it easier to shame some groups of people—usually based on gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status—and we will often work harder to avoid humiliation than almost any other motivation. We avoid situations where we might look foolish and evade risk-taking. Why are we so worried about what other people think about us?

Public Humiliation

The answer lies in the importance of being a member of a community; our “herd,” our “tribe,” our “social group,” etc., whose universality points toward our nature as human beings to be persons-in-relationship. Being persons-in-relationship is a fundamental tenet of human existence. A Christian theologian will speak about the Trinity being a community of love in whose image humans were created: to be in relationship. Removing unnecessary theologizing, others say, “Look around you! Everything is connected.” By default, we are in relationship with every other creature on the planet and with the planet itself.


It is beneficial to consider our motivations to engage in “right behavior” and remain part of community. Obviously, we don’t want to “do something wrong” because it could injure the larger community. But is there more to it? After all, being separated from our circle through a humiliating event is a sort of excommunication. Perhaps the fear of humiliation—the eyes of everyone around us weighing our worth because they have observed some mistake or breach of protocol—is a larger factor in this equation. Perhaps we are often living as persons-in-relationships-of-fear.


There is an alternative: being persons-in-relationships-of-love. This is a difficult path, because it requires admitting that we make mistakes and allowing others to make mistakes. It demands that we consider whether one errs through negligence or by deliberate choice. It compels that we react in loving ways to mistakes: usually excusing or overlooking, sometimes assisting or correcting, sometimes opposing or combating. Everyone has foibles, and they rarely rise to the level requiring correction.


Once we are able to see why we ought to overlook most mistakes of others, we arrive at the hardest part: forgiving our own mistakes and developing habits that help us avoid repeating them. Often, the humiliation we feel when we err is internalized. Our friends, family, and acquaintances are not judging us, but we are condemning ourselves. Who hasn’t tripped over their own feet walking down a perfectly level sidewalk? It’s mortifying; but why? People with decency who see someone trip usually chuckle to themselves, thinking, “Thank heavens that wasn’t me this time,” and then move to assist if necessary. Decent people aren’t condemning us for our foibles, and if indecent people condemn us, who cares? Do their opinions matter?


And what about being condemned for taking risks? For actions we take deliberately that flout social convention? What if we march in a pride parade, publicly refuse to do business with institutions that discriminate, hug a person of another race in public, or have a conversation with a homeless person? Rev. Matthew told me a great quote (of which I promptly forgot the specifics, but —hopefully—retained the sense): “If it’s the right thing to do, we have every right to do it.” Sometimes we must brave a little humiliation to advance the cause of righteousness and justice in the face of those who espouse conformity above all else. The distinction between persons-in-relationships-of-fear and persons-in-relationships-of-love couldn’t be clearer than in these situations.


So, why on earth is the music guy talking about this? This month, I am writing to my own little flock. Singing in front of anyone, especially our friends and family, is terrifying. There is nothing more personal than our own voices, and we do not have the luxury of an instrument between ourselves and our musical expression. People might judge us! Except…the decent folk don’t judge us. When we sing for Emerson, people in the congregation are—by and large—thinking, “I’m so glad you’re singing for us. I’m so glad you’re adding to our worship and our community. I’m so glad you’re doing that instead of me!” (The folks in that last group might want to consider the “fear/love” dynamic underlying their reluctance to join the choir…) Instead, the terror surrounding performance is interior. The humiliation felt over a wrong note is interior. It’s still real, but the solution lies within us, not with someone else.

Public Affirmation

If it’s the right thing to do, we have every right to do it. Singing for Emerson is beneficial to the community and to ourselves. Adding beauty to worship through song is a great and authentic gift of self. We rehearse to build habits that reinforce accurate, healthy, musical singing. And sometimes we sing a wrong note, breathe in the wrong place, and have inadvertent solos during a rest. Sometimes we trip, walking down a perfectly level sidewalk. Welcome to being human. Err boldly. Acknowledge your humanity with pride. We are doing the right thing, which we have every right to do. Welcome to being persons-in-relationships-of-love.