Pardon my blush

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Column by David B. Whitlock

I could feel the veins in my face grow suddenly warm as I imagined my cheeks glowing bright red, signaling to all that I was blushing.

It happened in the post office. Clinking shut the little door to my mail box, I whirled around to see the usual long line waiting at the counter. And there with her back turned to me was one of my parishioners. I sneaked up to her and bending my finger to form a knuckle, tapped her on the arm, mouthing a clicking sound as I did, thinking she would laugh when she saw that it was me, her pastor who was teasing her.

Only when she turned around in surprise, it wasn’t my friend. It was a complete stranger.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” I attempted an apology as I stepped away from her. “I … I thought you were someone else.”

By now, everyone else in line had turned around, curious to see what was happening, wondering what exactly I had done to this innocent victim of my misplaced prank. I thought I noticed one lady edging closer to the counter.  

I backed out of the post office, in the words of Roberta Flack, “all flushed with fever.”

Later that day, right after lunch, I happened to see my friend’s son-in-law downtown. I told him my story of how I had thought I had seen his mother-in-law at the post office but startled someone else. We both laughed.

Moments later, back at the office, I glanced in the mirror.

What was that on the side of my face? Oh my goodness, a splotch of brown balsamic vinaigrette salad dressing from lunch. Now I wondered if the son-in-law was laughing at my story or the brown tobacco-juice-looking stain glaring on the side of my mouth.

And again, I felt, “all flushed with fever.”

That evening, I was telling my wife the story of my two faux paus.

“Did you have any appointments this afternoon?” she asked.

“Just one,” I answered. “Why?”

“Because you’ve got mustard on the front of your shirt.”

She wasn’t kidding - there it was, bright shining and yellow, between the third and fourth buttons.

It was all in a day’s work: Through each awkward event I felt that rush of blood to my cheeks and a faint light-headedness.

It’s called blushing and scientists believe it’s is a common human reflex that developed in our evolutionary process over tens of thousands of years.

It’s akin to a “flight or fight” response to our nervous system, an involuntary reaction. We have a sudden rush of adrenaline, our pupils grow larger and our digestive system slows down to allow the blood flow to be directed to our muscles.

One theory is that blushing came to signal that a social norm had been broken. Neuroscientist Mark Changizi in his 2009 book, The Vision Revolution, claims that we developed unusually strong color vision so that we could detect subtle hue changes in other peoples’ skin and could thereby deduce their emotions.

His results “showed that in the context of transgressions and mishaps, blushing is a helpful bodily signal with face-saving properties. It seems therefore unwise to hide the blush or to try not to blush in these types of contexts.”

In other words, blushing actually evokes sympathy and in effect disarms an otherwise threatening situation.

Ahh, so that explains that dear lady’s kindness to me in the post office, “That’s OK, I understand,” I thought I heard her say as she beamed an empathic grin. And what’s a little tobacco, I mean balsamic vinaigrette, on the side of the mouth but a cue for more sympathy? And mustard dribbled down the front of my shirt? Bring on the compassion.

Come to think of it, as I reflect on that day, I believe I was the recipient of more warm heartedness than usual.

I’m getting up extra early tomorrow to practice a little blushing. And if I can’t come by it that way, I’ll just wear a brown penny loafer on my left foot and a black wing tip on my right.

David B. Whitlock, Ph.D., is pastor of Lebanon Baptist Church and an adjunct professor at Campbellsville University. He can be reached at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com