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Not so long ago, I went to a reading. It was an author who, back in his prime, used to be a bestseller. I still think of him as a big name. Unfortunately, only three people showed up for the reading. Including me.
He was visibly crestfallen when he went onstage to the loudest applause we could muster, and the Q&A session was brutal. It was so awkward that I haven’t been back to a reading since. Was there any way to defuse the situation, do you think? I just felt so bad for the guy.
You experienced someone else's public humiliation. Author readings are often death by a thousand public humiliations, followed by short Q&A. This isn't a bad thing. I would argue that you shouldn't have done anything to defuse the situation and really, there's nothing you could have done.
Several years ago, a man I was pretty smitten with dedicated a song to me on his local radio show. I don't remember the song – it didn't matter – what mattered was he knew I was listening and he did something that no man had ever done for me before: he gave me a public declaration of affection.
When our odd relationship was on its deathbed and I was locked in a losing battle with myself to prove he had cared about me once, I brought it up to him, this moment that I had cherished for over a year. His response was this: "I never dedicated a song to you, I would never dedicate a song to you, that's psychotic."
Before that moment I did not know you could be physically petrified by humiliation. A friend of mine witnessed that moment – when someone broke off a piece of my heart and chucked it into the trash, and then took a shit on top and lit the whole mess on fire – and her response was this: "Damn, that's raw. Nothing will fix this, in fact alcohol might make it worse, but that's about all I can offer, aside from an alibi if his house gets torched for some reason."
My point is this: the popularity of social media and memoir-writing has left us with a pretty stark dichotomy: people who overshare the highlights of their lives and people who overshare their own bottoming out. Either way, the scenes and emotions are curated for an audience. Much less common is what you witnessed – that raw moment when our carefully curated realities are dickslapped by actual reality and we wish to Jesus Prom King Christ that whatever vengeful god had led us here would just finish the job and swallow us whole.
We need those moments to flex our emotions and remind us that life always what we make it, it isn't good or fair or controllable. The best thing you can be in these instances is an empathetic witness and offer alcohol if the situation calls for it.