I believe in humility and understand that it comes with age–if we’re lucky–and that it can change people. In contrast to my youthful arrogance, this is something that has come to me in my middle-ish years through my experiences, travels, and honest contemplation of my place on this planet—through the slices of my life. For me humility is a principle to live by. I always try my best to be a principled person—even, if at times, it is misguided.

When push came to shove, I took my detention. Some battles wrapped in teenage angst aren’t worth fighting.

I can recall in fourth grade exerting my unalienable rights against the institutional powers that be in the name of freedom. Leaning back haughtily in my chair munching my tuna sandwich and sipping my juice box, I recall mouthing off to the lunch lady who told me to quiet down. “It’s my right to speak, and neither you nor this school shall take this right from me.” My classmates thought this was cool. I felt the power of protest. Mrs. Connolly, however, 32 weeks pregnant in the late August heat, just wanted to fulfill her “volunteer” obligation to the grade school and did not admire my gumption. So I took it to the next level—high school.

Again, I flexed my principles for their own sake in the required religion class. Head hanging in apparent to-cool-for-school indifference, doodling obstinately in my notebook, I listened to Mr. Malarkey drone on about Catholic virtues. Recognizing the inconsistency between his words and actions, I belched it out: “Hypocrite!”

“Who said that?”

“I said it.”

“See me after class.”

Sitting in the Dean of Discipline’s office later that day, I argued my case.
“Sit down and shut up. Who do you think you are? Perry Mason? ”

When push came to shove, I took my detention. Some battles wrapped in teenage angst aren’t worth fighting.

Later, after college, I found myself in Japan studying Aikido—a martial art for which there is no room for ego. Agatsu means mastery of oneself. It comes before all else. I remember the unheated dojo and the creek of its tin roof flexing under the press of January wind. After a couple hours of breakfalls—enough to humble anyone—we would work together to clean the mats with warm water and rags. Crouched on my knees wiping the mat clean, I recall on his knees beside me the elder master—a man all revered for his knowledge, skill, and hard earned rank. Together we swept away flecks of dried skin, human hairs, and the occasional spot of blood before gathering together around a pot of tea to split oranges. I felt my arrogance fall away. Strangely I felt shame, my mind skipping years back to my high school grocery store job where I was too good to clean the bathroom, and so quit. Funny how the mind works.

Together we swept away flecks of dried skin, human hairs, and the occasional spot of blood before gathering together around a pot of tea to split oranges.

This change in me, this evolution, this loss of my-shit-don’t-stink pride has been one of slow growth over time, but if I had to pin down the moment of surrender—the turning point where I found there to be greater strength in service than demand—it would have to be the birth of my son. At 32 weeks, he was cut from my wife’s belly in an emergency c-section. The nurse extended him to me, his little body bloody and curled, as I cut his umbilical cord. Later that night, while watching him wrap 5 of his little fingers around my pinky—I knew once and for all that my days of demands were behind me. I would be of service to this little human being as a father for the rest of my life. And in this moment, in this surrender and wild gush of life that carried me forward, I was overwhelmed with love and compassion. I was humbled.

Most recently, I was given one more lesson in humility watching both my parents die within in four months of one another. Cancer. All very sudden. My mother in particular imparted this lesson. She taught me how to die with dignity—filled with eternal hope, courage, peace, and kindness. In her final moments, she spoke with authentic concern for others. Compassion. Humility. My mother died well because she lived well.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve.” In letting go of my ego—in plumbing the depths of humility—I hope to be better, to apply the lessons I’ve learned, and to positively affect the lives of others—even if I never know it.