In All Humiliation

A worldwide observance of Humiliation Day is scheduled to occur on January 3, 2017, in an effort to raise awareness of the negative effects of humiliation. Unlike humility, which is a virtue characterized by inner strength, humiliation is a degradation of another human being through intimidation, unwarranted criticism, or mistreatment that results in the lowering or loss of that person’s self-respect. Many times, it is a tactic employed by people to cut other people down in order to feel good about themselves, usually a sign of insecurity. That same insecurity comes through as a defense mechanism if a person feels threatened by the words or actions of another. Often, we defend ourselves automatically to cover our own inadequacies or to avoid having to face our own private demons.

Parents often feel they have a right, a duty, to “teach” their children – a concept that is often used to excuse using hateful, hurtful words that cut into a child’s mind and heart. Such criticism is destructive rather than constructive, and can linger forever. For example, every time I visit my mother, she criticizes my weight, knowing full well the roadblocks I battle daily, including diabetes and depression. You would think, being a Registered Nurse, she would at least show her own daughter the same compassion as one of her patients, right? Wrong. Being verbally abused and unloved herself as a child, she seems determined to repeat the same horrendous behavior toward yet another generation. If she had said, “I’m worried about your health; is there anything I can do to help you with weight loss?” – I would have felt love and concern instead of degrading criticism and humiliation.

Recently, I was privileged to hear Danielle Metcalfe at a meeting of The Final Twist. Ms. Metcalfe has written several histories based on the indigenous peoples of the Northwest and Canada. Her focus has been on aviation and the overlooked role of women and First Nation pilots during WWII. In her book, “In This Together,” she compiled 15 stories written by the indigenous peoples of Canada, explaining how the history of colonialism impacted their society and affected their “path toward reconciliation.” Her words brought to mind my own country’s history of inflicting humiliation and degradation on those not of Eastern European descent – which includes not only the slaughter and subjugation of Native Americans, but the placement of innocent Japanese families in internment camps at the start of WWII, the mistreatment of the Chinese who built our great railroads, the enslavement and discrimination toward African Americans that has been a harsh reality since before our nation was founded, the threat to send illegal immigrants and their families back to Mexico and Central America, and, more recently, the animosity shown to innocent Muslims caught in the middle of a search for terrorists. With our history of open immigration, fear-mongering, slavery, and blatant discrimination, the United States may have more to regret and/or apologize for than other countries when it comes to the humiliation inflicted on others.

In “The Power of Words” Yehuda Berg wrote in The Huffington Post that words possess “energy and power” and have the ability “to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.” His article exhorts us all to listen and think before we speak, to view gossip as trivial and a waste of our attention. He mentions Nelson Mandela and how his years of solitude while in prison taught him how precious words can be. Mohammed Quhtani, a world-renowned speaker, said words “whether verbally or in writing” determine how others perceive you, and can also build or destroy relationships. Perhaps, in our world of social media, we should think before we text, so as not to humiliate ourselves and others. Humiliation is not a human characteristic you want to pass on.

As writers, with the possibility of reaching a wide range of readers, we need to be continually cognizant or Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 quote reminding us that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proved how words can change an entire society for the better, and Adolf Hitler proved the opposite with propaganda and hate speeches. Even more awe-inspiring are the words of King Solomon in Proverbs 18:21, that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” And I have personally wondered at the words found in the 38th chapter of the Book of Job, when God “spoke the world into being” and “the morning stars sang together.”

Finally, in 1624, John Donne wrote a poem titled “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” referring to the custom of ringing funeral bells when a person died. This title was later borrowed by Ernest Hemingway as a title for a novel, paying tribute to Donne’s famous exhortation that “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main” and “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in all mankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Imagine the beautiful music that would echo across the land if, when we humiliated a fellow human being, we rang a funeral bell as our just penance for causing the death of an innocent spirit. Perhaps, and not just on Humiliation Day, we should take John Donne’s words to heart and avoid humiliating others; it only serves to diminish the humanity in us all.






Time, Circumstance, and Setting

TIME, CIRCUMSTANCE, and SETTING                                                                    June 7, 2016

I recently watched Stephen Hawking’s Genius series on PBS Channel 8 in Houston on the possibilities of time travel. Three people were shown numbers that constituted an invitation to a party. The numbers represented the intersection of 46th Street and 11th Street, and a 15-story building. But when the people arrived, the party had long been over; they walked dejectedly among the half-inflated balloons, empty cups, and food remains. Hawking had given them the where of the party, but had neglected to give them the when. My writer’s mind immediately made a connection between the elusive dimension of time and the importance of time when applied to the setting in a story or novel.

I had just finished Mary Buckham’s book, “A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting,” explaining how setting adds depth to your character, and a time tangent led me to Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”:

“Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it. Somehow, it was hotter then. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon and after their three o’clock naps. And by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting from sweating and sweet talcum. The day was twenty-four hours long, but it seemed longer. There’s no hurry, for there’s nowhere to go and nothing to buy…and no money to buy it with.”

I realized it was time and circumstance that Harper Lee used to draw me into the story. She didn’t just tell me the where (Deep South) and the when (1932), but she used specific details to show how the people reacted to their circumstances at a specific time in history. Being a native Texas, I certainly knew what to expect in the way of heat and humidity, but she wove the setting in such a way that it brought depth to her characters. It was a different place and time, and a remarkable first paragraph. Of course, someone who grew up north of the Mason-Dixon Line might not relate to the difference in time−that there’s a heap of difference between the Republic of Texas and the Deep South, not just in speech, but in mindset. Or that in the pre-Civil War Deep South, things moved so slowly it was even said that “time stood still.” So how relevant is time to circumstance, and how do they relate to setting? Sometimes, the addition of a sentence or two can explain both. Buckham demonstrated this with the following two examples:

“The day I left Paris, I knew I would be returning as soon as possible.”

“Paris had dressed in her best to see us off. A warm spring sun peeked through the pearl-grey skirts of early morning gog. And a light breeze stirred the new leaves on the Champs-Elysees as if waving farewell.”  −Deanna Raybourn’s A Spear of Summer Grass

The first sentence tells us where (Paris), but doesn’t really explain how the character feels about leaving. The expanded paragraph tells us not only the when (spring) and the where (Paris), but takes us deeper into the character’s circumstance of being forced to leave a city she’s grown to love, and shows us how she feels. Buckham also includes a negative, rainy-day reaction when the setting changes. We all look at things differently, and how we filter what we see depends on who we are and where we come from, our character. And how that character reacts over time can change as well, from child to adult to a senior citizen. Time can just as easily refer to the time of day/year/month/century as it can a person’s time in life. Hawking seemed to understand this elusive nature of time, and demonstrated in his documentary how we cannot move back in time without meeting ourselves−a complicated circumstance, to say the least. Perhaps Thomas Wolfe was right when he said, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Time of life, or actual time?

Back to Buckham’s book. Setting also uses time to create conflict (future) or show backstory (past), hopefully without making it an “info dump” that pulls the reader out of the story. Each of us reacts to feelings in different ways, and setting can evoke positive as well as negative reactions, depending on time and circumstance. Buckham reminds us that backstory matters only if it is relevant to current choices, decisions, or events in your story.  She gives an example of using setting and circumstance to trigger a memory that serves to contrast what the character is seeing and thinking. And she incorporates sensory details as well:

“A watery sun was shining on it [the house]. There was a faint breeze and the smell of woodsmoke in the air and a kind of intense cold-afternoon quiet all around us. It was the kind of place you would have wanted your grandparents to live…it reminded me of the places in the picture books they gave me in Manila and Guam.”

This is a vast improvement over:

“I had been a child who had grown up on military bases around the world, who had never had what I saw as a traditional American home.”

A lot was said about the setting and the character’s reaction to it, which took him back in time and revealed another level of his character. You can draw the reader deeper into the character’s point of view (POV) by triggering a memory that causes the reader to care. If place and time form an integral part of your story, take extra pains with it early on to anchor it in the reader’s mind, but Buckham reminds us to be careful about pacing. When is setting too much setting? When it takes away from the story. Take your character into the setting, and use the setting to take the reader deeper into the character. And remember that elusive dimension of time, so nobody misses the party.

Caden St. Claire