At the Detroit Opera House, David Sedaris told a story about the “walk of shame” involving an elderly man who shat himself in an airplane. Apparently everyone within proximity heard the man’s daughter express her outrage; David was seated a few rows behind them. He cringed. The old guy shuffled off to the bathroom never to return his seat, despite the airline attendants attempts to lure him out during landing.
Sedaris wanted to shout at them, “Oh, please, just leave the poor man alone!”
He understood how hard it would be for the man to walk back through the airplane to his seat.
Sedaris was sure that one day, when he’s 85, it’s likely he’ll lose his bowels, too.
Few things are more shameful than public accidents.
I was working as a picture framer when my coworker Betty, a 4’9,” red-haired, demure lady of 63, stood in the doorway of our workroom (which led to a hall with a bathroom) and made loud tsk, tsk noises while shaking her head. It was the kind of action you might take when you discover your very large dog rolled in the mud and then jumped on the couch. In other words, the deed has been done and you’re left with the mess. I looked in the direction of Betty’s wagging finger. To my astonishment, someone had left a trail of three plops of poop in our work space.
I vaguely recalled a middle-aged woman dressed in slacks and an overcoat, purse over her arm, had walked through the workroom to use the bathroom.
Then the smell hit me. My gut response was “Find that woman and make her clean this up!” but she’d vanished. After we expressed our disgust, Betty donned rubber gloves and got to work cleaning the carpet. Another coworker, Jeff, a big prissy, was so aghast over the whole stink he immediately had to go home, most likely to take a nap with a wet washrag on his face.
One thing tempered my disgust: how awful it must have been for that woman who knew, as she hurried to the bathroom, she was leaving deposits. No surprise she exited our shop by leaving through the other hall.
No one could make me laugh harder than my school friend Andrea. I’m talking gut-splitting, tears-rolling-down-your-face, pants-wetting laughter. Unfortunately, one of those times was in school. We were fourteen-year old freshman. She and I and two boys were sitting by ourselves at a round table in the Spanish study hall room, goofing off. I cannot recall why we were without supervision, or there were no other students, but surely it involved some less-than-truthful finagling. I cannot recall the cause of hilarity, either. Maybe Andrea was saying “Ralph” while burping. She was great at saying weird things while burping. Anyway, I laughed so hard my bladder muscles gave loose.
I panicked. In all probability, no one would have noticed the small puddle on the floor. I wasn’t going to chance it, though. I jumped up and shouted something like, “Oh my God, there’s something on my chair. Why, it’s all wet!! Andrea, oh my God, why didn’t you tell me?!” I might have added a curse word for theatrical emphasis. Andrea looked sideways at my chair in disbelief. Mortified, I gathered my books and hurried to the bathroom.
This could have been the end of any semblance of normal social life for me in school. I’m sure Andrea and the boys knew what had happened. In addition to being hilarious, she could also be an unusually mean girl, but as far as I know she never told anyone. If she had, I’m pretty sure the ensuing ridicule would have reached me. Independence was a small school. I can only assume they felt my shame and for that reason kept their mouths shut.
Human beings are wired to feel the pain of others.
I recall when a girl in my elementary school class had an accident one morning. We all saw the puddle under her desk. Someone may have pointed it out to the teacher. Some of us may have whispered, or even giggled, but no one laughed out loud. No one. I felt horrible for her. She sat, trembling, with her head buried in her arms on her desk. Oh, the mortification. Oh, the awkwardness. This was one of those things that was so shameful it shut us all up. Call it empathetic embarrassment– incidents in which we feel empathy toward the plight of others and embarrassed for their predicaments.
A German professor of psychiatry and psychotherapy and head of the Social Neuroscience Lab, Dr. Sören Krach, explains: “The brain is an expert in simulating the inner states and affective experience of other human beings.” This ability that enables empathy, an emotional state known as vicarious embarrassment. “From a neuroscience perspective this is a very interesting phenomenon since you now have to distinguish this emotional experience from those that arose from your own body,” Krach said.
It’s what Sedaris was talking about.
“Just leave the poor man alone.”
And we hope it never happens to us.
We are sure that someday it will.
Linda K. Sienkiewicz is the author of the award-winning novel In the Context of Love, about one woman’s need to tell the truth without shame.
Angelica must find the strength to make her life her own after a devastating family secret, heartbreak, betrayal and bad decisions turn her world upside down.
Sarton Women’s Fiction Finalist
Eric Hoffer Book Award Finalist
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USA Book News Best Book Finalist
New Apple Book Awards Official Selection
“…at once a love story, a cautionary tale, and an inspirational journey.” ~ Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of National Book Award Finalist, American Salvage, and critically acclaimed Once Upon a River,and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters