Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Humbling Lesson Of Humility

Two Peasants Digging After Millet by Vincent van Gogh

The German poet Goethe once wrote, “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” Wise words that I often use in both parenting and my interaction with others. 

Years ago, to earn extra money, I took on a part-time job cleaning an office building. I worked at night, after most of those who worked there had gone home. I would vacuum, empty trash cans, clean the bathrooms and the break rooms. Usually it was very quiet and, being a solitary person, I had time to be with nothing more than my thoughts and the silence that was only broken by my own work. Sometimes I would come across someone working late. Most were genial and would greet me, but there was one man who did not see me; he only saw a menial worker. Doing the job that I was, he made assumptions about who I was, how much education I did or did not have, and, if he spoke to me at all, it was in a demeaning way. He would push the trash can towards me with his foot. Unlike others I had met in this building, this man never asked my name, or how I was doing or made even the slightest attempts at civil small talk. There was a part of me, deep down, that wanted to get up in his face and say, "You don't know me. You don't know anything about me," and then tell him about the two degrees I had earned, the education I had, reference works of great literature and philosophy and, basically, school him on not making assumptions about those who work at jobs he considers beneath him. But I didn't. Part of the reason came from having been around people who feel the need to give you their curriculum vitae. This happened to me when I was just out of graduate school and working at Barnes and Noble.

This particular Barnes and Noble was just outside of Chapel Hill. We had a lot of students and professors who shopped our store from both Carolina and Duke Universities. One night, as I'm shelving some books, an older man in suit comes right up to me, indignant about the fact that our bookstore only carried two of a book of literary theory. When I politely explained that two was more than we normally carried of a book of literary theory because they did not sell large quantities (in fact it was the least visited part of the store - along with poetry and philosophy, sadly). He then informed me that he had written this book and I feigned being impressed. This man then told me his name and asked if I had ever heard of him. Now, I had a degree in English and one in Communications. I read widely and of diverse subjects and interests, but I had not heard of this man. When I said that I hadn't, he then began to rattled off his entire list of accomplishments (books he'd published, awards he'd won, etcetera). He was offended that I had never heard of him and he proclaimed me, "Ignorant and needing a decent liberal arts education." as well as letting me know he would never set foot in this inferior bookstore ever again. For that last part I was eternally grateful. After he stormed out of the store, I just stood there feeling sorry for him. He was, indeed, a man of some accomplishment and renown (years later I would see him being interviewed by Charlie Rose), but none of that matter in the face of someone who did not recognize him. He based his worth not on his accomplishments or achievements, but on his being noticed by others for them. 

Ego and pride are something we all struggle with. We all deeply want recognition and to be seen. We don't like to think that who we are and what we do doesn't matter. I was definitely struggling with that in dealing with this man working late as I had to take the trash out of his office while he thought I was beneath him. It was humiliating. Part of the humiliation was that I wasn't doing what I had always dreamed I would do, that all of the people who had told me over the years that I would become rich and famous because of my art and my writing would be surprised to see me cleaning offices. 

Night after night, as I cleaned, I hoped that this man would not be working late, that I wouldn't have to see him again, and I dreaded as I worked my way from the top floor to the bottom where his office was on the very last hall I had to clean. Making myself miserable, I felt compelled to pray. Not for myself or for that man not to be there, but for him. I didn't know him or his life or really anything other than his rudeness. So I prayed. 

Sometimes our prayers don't quite work the way we had hoped. The more I prayed for this man, the worse he got. One night he stopped me and decided to show who he was by what he had and what he made. I have met many like him, who want to raise themselves up by what they own, how much they make, where they live, and of what they can buy. He bragged about his success in a way that reminded me of Alec Baldwin's character in Glengarry Glen Ross as he tells those beneath him that the expensive watch he wears and the expensive car is who he is. Just as I had with that professor, I felt not jealousy or envy but sadness. Why did he feel the need to put me in my place? I listened quietly until he finished and then went back to cleaning. Instead of pushing the trash can near me for me to get it, he knocked it over. Trash spilled onto the carpet. He waited and watched to see how I would react. Everything in me wanted to lash out at him, put him in his smug, self-centered place. I wanted to tell him off and storm out. But I didn't. I simply gathered up the trash and took it out. 

That night, on the way home, I was hurt and angry. My wounded ego and pride spoke loudly and I felt humiliated and stupid and worthless. As I fumed in my anger, an image came to mind. A vivid one of Christ, kneeling before his disciples to wash their feet. Humbling himself to clean off the dust and muck and filth that had gathered on them. The son of God, the creator of all things, washing the feet of his creation. I think of the line in Philippians 2:7 that said, " . . . but he emptied himself, taking on the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men." 


Bondservant comes from the Greek word duolos, which means slave who is entirely at the disposal of his master. In Roman times, a bondservant could mean a slave who voluntarily served others. And that's just what Christ was. He left the kingdom of heaven to become lowly and of little status in a backwater town in Nazareth in Galilee. 

I was silenced. 

After that, I prayed that my attitude towards this businessman would change. I was learning the hard, difficult lesson of Philippians 2:3, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves."

If I'm honest, if I had been a disciple, I would have been one of the ones arguing over who would be the greatest and sit at the right hand in the kingdom. It is sinfully natural to want to exalt oneself.  We all want to proclaim, "Look at me! Look at what I've done!" Like children on the playground trying to get the attention of their teacher or at home to get their parent to look. We crave acceptance and to be seen. 

When we aren't, it is easy to become bitter or angry. 

But earthly glory has no kingdom worth. Accolades, awards, accomplishments mean nothing ultimately. It's nice to be recognized, but, as Mother Teresa once said, "If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are." I would add to that, "And whose you are."

I would love to write that there was a change in that man, that somehow he found out the truth about me and remorsefully approached me and apologized, but he never did. While he did not change, I did.

What he taught me, however, was to see others. Those in the lowliest positions. Those who clean bathrooms or sweep parking lots or do any of the  numerous jobs most of us would balk at doing. Back when Wal-Mart had greeters, I would speak to them whenever they greeted me. This stunned most of them, who were used to going unseen and unspoken to. 

Christ calls us not to rise, but to descend. We are to be not with the proud and the arrogant, but with the humble, the lowly, the forgotten and neglected. When we don't consider ourselves better than others, we are free to truly love others. We are not judging them or ourselves by others' standards, but are open to being present with another, to seeing them as they are, hearing what they have to say, and loving openly and without condition. This is what Christ did and what he's called us, as his followers, to do. 


Two Hands by Vincent Van Gogh



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