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.






What To Do When Your Character Wants Revenge

Recently I found myself at an impasse when my main character committed suicide because she was in love with a married man. A completed circle, a common triangle, a beautiful story, a boring ending. Something was terribly wrong. It was predictable, and there was no twist, no depth, no “oomph.” I stopped and listened to my character. It turned out she wasn’t ready to “go quietly into that good night.” The little sweetheart wanted revenge. I had to admire what was left of her spirit, and I played around with her little act of defiance to see what I could do. As every writer knows, characters do not always act as we program them to act, and (though we hate to admit it), occasionally they do know better.

That decided, I immediately thought of two quotes, both ancient and time-honored. The first, a quote from Star Trek: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” And the other, from Confucius: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” I wrestled with the first one, then discarded it because my character’s nature was not a cold one. Does one have to be cold to seek revenge, or just cold enough to serve it? No, the second one appealed to both my character and myself. It would work. I started thinking about revenge. What does it really accomplish? Not much if your character just threatens it with no follow-up. But what if your character actually goes for it?

In Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood, she talks about this “dark side that shouldn’t be ignored.”

“Before you have a character take the air out of her ex-lover’s tires because he left her for another woman, consider what that tells your reader about the character. How does that act change the story? The person? The reader’s response to both?”

If it’s revenge with a little “r” (as in the above scenario), chances are pretty good that the boyfriend will be angry, but face facts — the only one you’re going to hurt is you. If your character wants revenge enough to murder for it, the logical consequence would be lethal injection or life imprisonment. Hence, two graves. But what if it’s Revenge with a big “R” (as in getting even with someone who has left you with nothing but suicide as an option) and your character is already resigned to suicide? Methinks the game would change somewhat. It was fascinating to watch my quiet, withdrawn character come up with a fool-proof way to make it look like murder. She’s already set on one grave, so why not two? Now, that’s cold.

Do we always act predictably? No way. Neither do our characters. So the next time your character is trying to tell you something, it may behoove you to listen. Play around with it, and you just might reach the conclusion I reached as I ended my story, thinking, “Oh, yeah. You go, girl!” And yes, revenge can be sweet.