Let life be short, else shame will be too long.

I often wondered why James was so worried about the timing of things. If we had arranged to meet for coffee, for example, he’d always phone me the night before to make sure he’d remembered correctly. Sometimes, in fact, he’d even phone again in the morning to check on the time once again.

At first, I assumed he had just so much on his mind from work that he needed to reassure himself he’d written it down correctly. But, after we had both retired, and Age and Time hung heavily on our shoulders, I began to wonder if his forgetfulness -no, his worry about forgetting- was a sign of something more serious. He lived alone, and for a while, I thought that might have something to do with it. But so do I and although I occasionally worry about remembering things as well, it’s never like James. At any rate, one morning after we’d decided to meet at a coffee shop and after he’d already phoned me twice about the time, I decided to slip gently into the subject.

When I arrived, he was already commandeering a little table in the corner. I waved at him from the lineup, and he smiled and glanced furtively at his watch as if he were worried he’d got the time wrong.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said when I brought my coffee to the table. “I should have phoned you on the way…” I added when I saw the expression on his face.

He shrugged it away and sat back in his chair, obviously relieved that I’d even arrived. “No problem, G,” he answered, averting his eyes quickly from my questioning gaze. “I’m just glad I got it right…”

I had a quick sip of my coffee as I sat down, and then smiled reassuringly. “You holding out on me Jamie?” I said, trying to mount an innocent chuckle. “Doing odd jobs again?”

He glanced at me quizzically and shook his head. “Why would you think that?”

My turn to shrug. “Well, you must have a lot on your mind, eh? You seem to be forgetting when we’re supposed to meet…”

His eyebrows played gently with his forehead for a moment and then he smiled. “I’ve been like that ever since I’ve known you, G…” He grasped his coffee with two hands to keep it from spilling.

I must have looked worried, or something, because he walked his eyes back up to my face. “And no, I don’t think it’s dementia, or anything… It’s just… well, something that happened to me once…”

This was almost too easy. “What was that?” I asked, trying not to appear too anxious.

He had a slow sip of his coffee and then sighed deeply. “In my first year at university, I met a girl in the cafeteria.” He played with his cup for a moment before continuing. “We seemed to have a lot in common and we talked so long, we both ended up missing our morning classes.” His eyes brushed mine briefly and then dropped to the table again. “I’m kind of shy and I’d never been out on a date without being in a group, but I thought what the heck and asked her out for a movie the following Saturday; surprisingly, she accepted and then rushed off to talk to one of her friends who had just come into the cafeteria.”

His never-ending sentence told me he was anxious, but I let him ramble on.

“So, anyway, I couldn’t believe my luck; she was beautiful, smart, and unusually easy to talk to, and from what my friends told me, she was also really popular… My god, can you imagine?”

I smiled encouragingly, and sipped my coffee, all ears.

“I could hardly sleep Friday night -no popular girl had ever wanted to date me… Anyway, I thought I’d better try to show her I was even more sophisticated than her regular boyfriends and decided to bring her a bouquet of flowers. Nothing too expensive, mind you -I had to ask the florist what might be a nice choice for a first date. She winked at me and said she’d wrap them up with a nice ribbon and fancy glittery paper. She said they were open late on Saturdays, so I could even pick them up just before I went on the date.

Well, anyway, Martha -that was the girl’s name- lived with a couple of other women in a house near the campus. I was so nervous, I remember tripping on the stairs to her porch. Then I was afraid to knock… But, I finally did, although really lightly and timidly, unsure of whether to shove the flowers at her when she answered, or kind of hide them like a surprise.

“I heard a few voices through the door, but eventually she opened it with a surprised look on her face. ‘Jamie,’ she gasped, seeing the flowers behind my back. ‘What are you…?’

“A male voice sounding a bit peeved said something I couldn’t quite hear, but she turned her head and told it to shush… but nicely -like he was something special to her. ‘I… well, I… must have got the dates wrong, Jamie,’ she stammered, but I could tell she’d actually forgotten about our date. Totally forgotten about our conversation in the cafeteria…!”

Jamie finished up his coffee with one gulp and stared at me. “I felt humiliated, G. I’d never felt like that before, and… and I never want to feel that way again!” He pushed his chair back, and stood up. “So… dates and times are very important, don’t you think?”

Later, I began to think about the long term effects of humiliation, and, as these things sometimes happen, I chanced upon an essay in Psyche written by Ute Frevert, at the time, the managing director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. https://psyche.co/ideas/the-history-of-humiliation-points-to-the-future-of-human-dignity

Humiliation, of course, is making someone feel ashamed or foolish by injuring their dignity and pride. As Frevert writes, ‘Humiliation can be experienced only when the victims consider themselves on a par with the perpetrator – not in terms of actual power, but in terms of rights and dignity.’ It was only useful as an instrument of denigration in societies where people were regarded as ‘citizens’ rather than ‘subjects’ -equal before the law, in other words.

Before that, ‘shaming’ was a milder form of corporal punishment often resorted to where more severe punishment -jailing, or executing- was not yet called for. It’s intent was deterrence, by and large. ‘Public shaming was used widely as a supplementary punishment for men and women sentenced for unlawful acts. Local officials forced convicted criminals to stand on display in the pillory (a frame that trapped their head and arms), beat them in public and, in severe cases, branded them. Such sanctions were meant to instil shame and, ideally, remorse in the culprit.’ Because they were not considered ‘equals’ they were not considered to have any dignity that could be injured.

I could understand what had really bothered a sensitive and shy person like Jamie. He thought he had finally met someone who seemed to be like him -someone with similar interests, intelligence, and values. She was popular, but equal… And then, suddenly, she wasn’t; she didn’t consider him important enough to remember their conversation of only a few days before.

I suppose we all wear our dignity like that, though; we all want to think we are entitled to being treated with respect, with consideration. I’ve learned a lot from Jamie; it was brave of him to tell me. I can only hope his admission will free him somewhat; I can only hope it’s not too late…


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