“I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and, of course, ‘that woman.’ I was seen by many but actually known by few. And I get it: it was easy to forget that that woman was dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken.”
Those words are from Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk, “The Price of Shame.” When she says them in her talk, the stillness in the auditorium where she’s speaking reaches through the screen and envelopes you.
“Tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and, of course, ‘that woman.'” Those ten words helped me stand in her shoes. She could have stopped right there. I was already finding myself in her story.
As she told her story, these words gave me a window into how difficult her experience was during this time:
“Let me paint a picture for you. It is September of 1998. I’m sitting in a windowless office room inside the Office of the Independent Counsel underneath humming fluorescent lights. I’m listening to the sound of my voice, my voice on surreptitiously taped phone calls that a supposed friend had made the year before. I’m here because I’ve been legally required to personally authenticate all 20 hours of taped conversation. For the past eight months, the mysterious content of these tapes has hung like the Sword of Damocles over my head. I mean, who can remember what they said a year ago? Scared and mortified, I listen, listen as I prattle on about the flotsam and jetsam of the day; listen as I confess my love for the president, and, of course, my heartbreak; listen to my sometimes catty, sometimes churlish, sometimes silly self being cruel, unforgiving, uncouth; listen, deeply, deeply ashamed, to the worst version of myself,a self I don’t even recognize.
A few days later, the Starr Report is released to Congress, and all of those tapes and transcripts, those stolen words, form a part of it. That people can read the transcripts is horrific enough, but a few weeks later, the audio tapes are aired on TV, and significant portions made available online. The public humiliation was excruciating. Life was almost unbearable.”
Her courage blew me away. The stage she’s standing on isn’t just a TED stage, she knows that. As she says during the talk, “I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.” In choosing to speak in this way what she’s essentially saying to the world is “I’m a person like you. What you did to me–or let others do–and do today when you bully them and/or click through to sites that bully or spread gossip, isn’t right, has a real cost, and needs to end.” [That’s me summarizing her speech.]
Late in the speech she calls for people to be “Upstanders.”
“The theory of minority influence, proposed by social psychologist Serge Moscovici, says that even in small numbers, when there’s consistency over time, change can happen. In the online world, we can foster minority influence by becoming upstanders. To become an upstander means instead of bystander apathy, we can post a positive comment for someone or report a bullying situation.”
The reference, “upstanders” reminded me of Thomas Merton’s book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. There are moments of reverie in Merton’s book that are wonderful. Passages like this one help me understand how off-target we are when we shame people like Lewinsky. Off-target because there is so much we have in common. So much that we might otherwise celebrate were it not for the effects of original sin which blind us from what is obvious. Which keep us from seeing at each other with eyes like these:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. . . .
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts when neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed … I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.” ~ Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p171.
The contrast is incredible. The task for me–for each of us–is to think about the Monica’s of our lives. Not because we should fall down and worship them. No. Our goal is to find them as they are, our personal Monica’s, walking around shining like the sun.