Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.
Once upon a time, I read from Thomas Merton every day. In The Seven Story Mountain, Merton relates how he went from being a young man about town to a Trappist monk in the beautiful hill country of Kentucky. He wound up missing a lot of cocktail parties but made up for it by becoming a central figure in American and world religious thought.
Merton always went out of his way to emphasize the power of humility in ordinary life. Not an uncommon thought in the writings of people that live in monasteries, but what Merton brought to the field of religious writing was that the reader knew he had lived the high life and stepped away to take a longer view of the issues that present themselves to all of us. Every day.
As I note above, Merton believed that it was humility that makes us "real". Oh, how I agree with that idea. I find that whenever I start to feel really important I get a good, healthy dose of humility that probably saves me in the long term. Scene one...
I am traveling in a very pretty part of Florida and find that I have to go to a local mall department store first thing in the morning for some sundry or another. But it did not dampen my spirits. I was on a terror of a roll. Winning everything I touched. Golden words issuing from my lips (whenever I was paid to speak them) that were seemingly accepted as truth by anyone in the general listening vicinity. Or at least that is how it seemed at the time. In any event, I was feeling pretty damned good about myself. That morning. As I headed into the men's department of a just-opened store.
One of the things about Florida is that you have quite a few older ladies working in department stores that really know what they are doing. Ladies who have worked counters at Saks and such places for years. As I was considering a display of some sort, I was approached by one such Elderly Matron of Retailing, no more than four foot five inches tall, who peered up at me and said
EMR: "Excuse me, yacallah".
ML [confused/diverted] "I beg your pardon?"
EMR: [somewhat put out] "Yacallah--yacallah"
ML [very confused] "I'm sorry...I don't understand you". I was afraid she required some sort of esoteric medical attention.
EMR: [as if I had a mental problem] "Your...............COLLAR. It is TURNED UP IN BACK"
ML [embarrassed to death, scrabbling at the back of my neck]
EMR: "Here, bend down, I'll get it, I'll get it."
After I complied meekly and she fixed my twisted collar, she looked up at me again from a height of five foot four enhanced to seven feet tall by years of top drawer store experience..."Honey, you look good...pretty suit and tie, shiny shoes...but what good is all that if you have a collar?" Adequately brought back to Earth, my formerly undefeatable self went on my way. Humbled. And better for it.
Scene two, some months later...
I am beginning the biggest trial of my career. Part of a hand picked team beginning a two-week out of town battle against tremendous odds. We are all getting ready to troop over to a large courthouse in a small town to open the case. The head of our side was a lion of the courtroom. Impeccable. Unflappable. In command of his surroundings at all times. Subject to call by private jet at any moment by any number of top corporate concerns to handle trials literally anywhere. That first morning of trial, a dozen of us were all preparing to troop out to court. But only two of us would get to actually stand up and talk. The lion. And me. I wasn't nervous. Just very proud of myself. He strode over to my side. Lions always stride over to ones side. Glanced me up and down...
L: Ready to go tiger?
ML: I'm ready to rock, yes sir.
L: Great. Butyurcuff...
ML: [a deja vous induced bead of sweat appearing on my brow] I...um...beg your pardon?
ML: [almost thrown off my pins] Eh?
L: [as if he had heard from an Elderly Matron of Retailing that I had a mental problem] "Your....left...cuff...is....turned....down...."
No, he didn't offer to fix it for me. But actually it broke the ice a bit. We hit it off famously after that. When I returned home after two weeks, I pulled a small traveling volume of Merton off the shelf of my library and put it back into my briefcase. Where it belonged. Humility makes us real. And that, last time I checked, is the goal.
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