I once heard a priest make an ad-lib prayer at the end of Mass, and I just remember the phrase, “Save your people from social embarrassment”. “What the heck is that supposed to mean?” was my immediate holy thought. (I also frequently have other holy and humble thoughts at Mass like ‘I could give a better homily than that’ and ‘Good grief! This is NOT a musical performance, people!’)
But of course I knew. In India, “What will people say?” seems to be the motivation behind every decision from what career our children should pursue, to how much money we spend on a wedding, to whether we decide to leave an abusive marriage.
“I’m so glad you set an example to us in not caring what people think,” I said to my mother one day. My parents had made many counter-cultural choices with their life from choosing to accept five children, to using the majority of their time, talent and skill in Kingdom-building activities instead of the more traditional type of careers.
But when I said those words to my mother, she gave me a funny look. “What makes you think I don’t care what people think?” And then I realized, none of us are immune from the desire to bask in social approval and acceptance. Maybe the people or society we seek it from varies, but there is usually a certain world from which we crave approval. Maybe it’s our family or our church, maybe our group of vegan environmentalist friends, maybe our agnostic humanist co-workers, maybe our rebellious teenage club-hopping friends. Each group has its own set of values, and things that are okay and not okay to do.
We don’t always realize when we care about people’s approval though. It may suddenly hit us. “Why do I care so much about this thing that someone said? Why am I so upset and stressed by that person’s opinion of me? Why am I still thinking about it days later?”
Or it comes up when we’re planning an event or a life decision. Very few people would consider the possibility of not serving a meal at a wedding for example. They’d rather go into crushing debt than risk people’s criticism. Actually most kind of wedding customs usually bring out our attachment to social approval. There must be a gold chain. There must be alcohol. The wedding dress must not be second-hand. There must be certain gifts given to the other family. Why MUST there be? Because…. what will people say?
As a result of this obsession with social approval, there is an unhealthy fear of social embarrassment. The worst thing that could happen to a family is for it to lose the approval and good opinion of its community. What is the practical result of that? Sexual abuse is covered up. Unhealthy practices are never addressed. Couples struggling in marriage won’t consider therapy. Abortion is chosen over the disgrace of unwed pregnancies. Matches are arranged based on external and often shallow qualifications. Intelligent kids are forced into engineering and medicine regardless of their preferences. Mistakes are covered up instead of faced and corrected.
On a less dramatic level, as long as we are afraid of social embarrassment, we are not free to make decisions for the right reasons. What is the right thing to do in this situation? What is the more financially prudent option? What is the choice that will remove someone from harm’s way? What is the more loving choice? What is God calling us to do in this situation? What is a responsibility and what is an unhealthy expectation from our family members?
Sometimes we do the right thing, but we carry around with us an unhealthy burden of anxiety and stress because of what people said. Everyone has an opinion about our lives. But their opinions don’t have to carry any weight unless we really respect their judgment.
We need to be free to examine and challenge the biases and prejudices and unhealthy customs of our own groups and communities. We need to be free to do what is right in our particular family’s situation. And we need to feel free to do it in peace and without guilt. But we can only do that if we reject the power social embarrassment has in our life.
Instead of praying for protection against social embarrassment, I wish that priest had prayed this: “Lord, give us all the courage to stand up for what is right regardless of what people say or think. Let us not be conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewal of our minds. Give us the strength to care ONLY for your opinion, and to always remember that we are only what we are in Your eyes. Amen.”