— Can Embarrassment Be a Devotional Practice?

September 10, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Posted in Online Ministry | Leave a comment

I wrote professionally for years before jumping online in the mid 1990s. Reading and writing poetry is my only comfort when all else fails. But so often I grope for words in conversations and pull out ones that miss the mark; that leave the wrong impression. They aren’t freudian slips. The synapses in my brain go shopping for the word, get impatient and just pull out something that seemingly comes close to what I mean. I look for contexts of how the words are used and experienced.

And therein lies the rub: how the experience of spoken words is felt can turn into their meaning when in fact, the intent and revelation of  them may be something else.

The word “embarrassment” is one of my groped words. In its origins,  one meaning referred to the state of being vulnerable – typically financial vulnerability. Through the ages, “embarrassment” morphed slowly. It passed through a stage in which it was used to mean the opposite of financial vulnerability: “an embarrassment of riches,” for example, according to my multi-volume hard copy of the Oxford English dictionary.  That phrase lingers today with both negative and positive interpretations.

Today’s meaning though is a state of being in which one causes confusion and brings shame upon oneself  and to make themselves and others disarmingly self-conscious.

It is the latter meaning of the word that has always struck a chord in me. Being uncomfortably self-conscious and being willing to share that, to take risks, is to me a devotional practice that leads to growth of some kind.  I adore Shakespeare’s fools for  this reason.

But, I’ve bumbled along, trying to compliment individuals by praising them for embarrassing themselves! Sometimes I explain what I mean, other times I forget that my strange sensitivity to language is not shared.

To be embarrassed, IMHO, is to be courageous. Why? Because it means that on some level the practitioner understands that vulnerability is not a weakness.

I now know the word I’ve been groping for all these years: Vulnerability. Thanks go to Brene Brown, whom many of you may have watched in Ted talks, or whom have read her #New York Times Bestseller Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead . 

I watched her Ted talks this morning after fumbling with the word “embarrassment” again last week over coffee at the cafe down the street from me on the Cape. For the first time, a friend suspected what I meant and corrected me. In doing so, she introduced me to Brown’s work.

Brown  is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame and in the context of leadership.

Vulnerability, Brown says, is an emotional risk that is “our most accurate measurement of courage.”

So the next time you feel embarrassed or think someone else is embarrassing themselves, think of it as a sacred moment. The expressed vulnerability might really mean you are in the presence of courage.

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