How Embarrassing!

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How Embarrassing!

Kabbalah Centre
June 23, 2014
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In 2013, two young actresses were awarded the much-coveted Academy Award. Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway are both fine artists in their field, both are beautiful, and both accepted their awards with grace. But only one tripped on her way up the stairs to receive her statuette.

It was the kind of moment many of us fear—utter vulnerability while in the spotlight. Whether you face a job interview, your wedding day, or the evening you are handed a prestigious award, it’s human nature to imagine at least one thing that could go wrong. In Lawrence’s case, that one thing did. Yet, a funny thing happened afterward; she became America’s sweetheart. Her ability to show her embarrassment before 40.3 million viewers deemed her one of the most “likable” celebrities. A year later, she tripped again on the red carpet at the 2014 Academy Awards and immediately burst into laughter. While embarrassment is something most of us avoid at all costs, it turns out to be a vital human experience that deepens our connection to others and aids our spiritual growth.

A recent study at the University of California at Berkeley took a closer look at the nature of embarrassment and what the ability to be embarrassed says about a person. Researchers found that those who experience embarrassment easily are more likely to exhibit “pro-social” behavior, meaning they are more apt to be compassionate and share with others, pointing to a connection between vulnerability and the openness with others.

The study also revealed the social benefits of embarrassment. Participants found those who showed outward signs of embarrassment (as opposed to pride) while being praised, to be more trustworthy and likable, hence, the media success of actress Jennifer Lawrence. Embarrassment dictates how we relate to each other; researchers noted that those who readily express the emotion were able to smooth over conflicts and invite forgiveness, while those who fail to show signs of embarrassment tend to widen the rift between themselves and others.

These findings support what kabbalists have taught all along—that embarrassment is a key emotion that triggers spiritual growth. “We need to understand that embarrassment is a valuable tool for diminishing our ego,” says Michael Berg. When we experience embarrassment our egos feel the blow. Whether this leads to a deeply felt pain or a mild case of blushing, we are forced to come face to face with our own fallibility. As a result, we have the opportunity to transform that experience into wisdom.

There is an ancient story of a kabbalist that experienced such transformation as a result of deep embarrassment. Rav Chaim Hezekiah Medini, the Sedei Chemed, was regarded very highly in his community of Hebron. But a jealous man in town devised an evil plan to dishonor the great kabbalist. He convinced the synagogue cleaning woman to accuse the Sedei Chemed of attempting to rape her. The next day, while the great kabbalist was rapt in study, the cleaning woman fled the synagogue shouting accusations that the Sedei Chemed had attacked her. The kabbalist was so beloved in the community that no one believed her and she subsequently lost her job.

Many years passed when one day the woman approached the great kabbalist to apologize. “I’m very sorry for what I did to you a number of years ago, but the man who asked me to do this promised to support me and my family. He has done so all this time, but now he has passed away, and I have no way to put food on the table. Although most people believed that you couldn’t have done such a thing, I am sure that even to this day, there are some who have their doubts. If you wish, I will go before the entire community and tell them that I was lying, but please, can you help me find a job? Can you help me feed my family?”

The Sedei Chemed heard her out then found employment for her. Grateful, she repeated her offer to rectify her past transgression but the great kabbalist declined. “When you ran out yelling that I had raped you, I was terribly embarrassed, of course. But because of this embarrassment, my ego was nearly annihilated, and all the Gates of Wisdom opened up for me. Now I’m afraid that if you withdraw this accusation, those gates might close up again.”

This story illustrates the importance of embarrassment from a kabbalistic point of view. It is one of the many life experiences that have the potential to change us for the better if we let it. Though we tend to avoid embarrassing situations, we are far better off embracing them, allowing ourselves to feel the pain, and sharing that emotion with others. As difficult as it may be, embarrassment can open the door to deeper connections with others and spiritual transformation while diminishing our egos in the process.