I spent much of my life trying to be better, special, and right. The only alternative I could imagine was to be worse, ordinary and wrong and no one wants to be that.
Now I’m trying to teach myself (and my kids) that it is possible to be unique, valuable and connected instead. It is difficult to overcome years of conditioning. I still want to be best. I still want to be right. I still long to be special. But all of those adjectives create barriers between me and others. They keep me in a state of comparison instead of a state of compassion.
Unique is not special. We are all unique. Paradoxically, it is one of the many qualities we have in common with every human on earth. Our ability to recognize our own and other’s uniqueness helps us to connect with others as sovereign identities. Being unique is one of the things that gives us value. Even if every link in a chain appears identical, it is unique, and it plays its unique role in life. No other person – no other link in the chain of life – can take another’s place.
But for that uniqueness to have an effect, it must be connected. Without a connection to the rest of humanity, a person’s unique contribution to the world will be lost. It doesn’t have to be the best contribution, a “special” contribution, or even the right contribution. It just has to be that person’s contribution.
I came to understand that participation is more important than being right when I realized that Aristotle was wrong about almost everything he said. Seriously. He had some crazy ideas. But the fact that he was willing to share his ideas and explore them with others made him a valuable contributor to the world of ideas.
Like Aristotle, I can offer unique and valuable insights – even if they turn out to be completely wrong. I can offer unique and valuable service – even if it is not perfect; even if it’s not better than the guy’s beside me. It is my desire to be of service, my willingness to contribute and my whole-hearted participation that defines who I am, not whether I am better, special or right.
Even if the only thing I can do is to be the person that someone else practices their patience and compassion on, that is still a link in the chain and it serves a valuable purpose.
This is a real challenge to smart, talented and/or beautiful people – to truly be able to believe that they would still have value if they were slow, untalented and ugly. Humility is not about seeing yourself as low, but about understanding that EVERY person on earth is just as valuable as you are, no matter how un-special and wrong they may be.
I tell myself this. I try to believe it, but it goes against 57 years of conditioning. I pray to God that – as I grow old and weak and forgetful and needy – I can hold onto this belief and begin to internalize it enough that I can be at peace when even the dream of being better, special and right is beyond me.
This is what it means to pray for humility.