Lessons in Humility

hs graduationI have known many people who have poor self-esteem, and it certainly has a negative impact on their life. The worse their self-esteem is, the more negative the impact becomes. This is why learning to love yourself is so very important.

That being said, I have also known a number of people who appear to have the opposite problem:  their self-esteem and their ego are bigger than Alaska. Are they narcissists in the textbook sense, or are they just arrogant and unpleasant to be around? Does it matter?

The interesting thing about the latter group is that, uniformly and paradoxically, they tend to suffer from worse self-esteem than many. It just doesn’t look like they do.

My father made up for an amazing lack of self-esteem by being bombastic, arrogant, loud, and opinionated. He wasn’t able to have what I would call an adult conversation with anyone. Truly. He stood always ready to drive his opinions and points home with a sledgehammer. If you happened to agree with his opinions, you’d probably get on all right. If you disagreed, then God help you. My father stated on more than one occasion—and he truly believed this—that if “people” would simply see his brilliance for what it was and elevate him into a position of authority (President, perhaps), then he would fix everything within the span of two weeks. And he really believed that he could, and that he would. All he required was the authority and power granted to a tyrant.

Growing up with the certainty of “rightness” all around me (my mother really was a textbook narcissist, so they were in lock-step on being superior to everyone else), I was in danger of becoming equally hard to take. My social skills were practically nonexistent. I think my saving grace was that I had a capacity for kindness that both of my parents lacked. But even so, by the time I was 13, I was no fun to be around.

If you are raised in an echo chamber that tells you how wonderful you (and by extension, your family) are, how smart you are, how much smarter you are, and what an idiot everyone else is, well… You start to believe all that nonsense. If your teachers are “idiots” (according to father), then you must have nothing to learn from them. What could they possibly teach you, the Bearer of All Knowledge? Indeed, no one on earth can teach someone who already knows everything. This is a bad place to live.

I was a fairly intelligent kid. I was not the smartest person ever born. I was not the cleverest. I was not the most talented. But my Family Mythology said that I had to be, because my parents were. I had to reflect their Greatness back to them. Failure to do so would reveal cracks in their armor, would allow those nasty feelings of unworthiness to come into their consciousness, and this had to be prevented at all costs.

As my father’s attitude and disrespect for others began to manifest in me at the horrible age of 13, a kind, quiet man stepped in and probably literally saved my life. He was the principal of the very small, rural school that I attended, and he called me into his office one day. He spoke kindly to me. He said that he knew I must be frustrated, since the school’s resources could only provide so much, and I was bored. And he said that my attitude toward some of my teachers had become disrespectful, and that this was not okay, and, worse, it was actually hurtful. That surprised me. It hadn’t occurred to me that my disdain for the teachers was hurtful. I didn’t actually mean to hurt anyone.

And because this man was so kind, so compassionate, and so forthright with me, I began to cry. I started to see that I had behaved very badly. I began to understand that my teachers were doing the best that they could for me, and that I needed to be more respectful, and gracious. And grateful. And I began to change.

I did change, over the years. But I did pay a price for my early arrogance:   I was ostracized by my classmates for a time. They really piled on, and that hurt. If that’s what it looks like to be the “smartest” and best, then I’d have to say it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it to place yourself on a pedestal above other people. Pedestals are very lonely places. Life happens in the crowd.

I have come to understand the most important lessons in life. You have to live with other people, who may not agree with you. You’d better show some respect, or life will be very hard. Other people’s feelings may not trump your own, but they still matter, particularly if you care about them. And I don’t know everything. If I thought I did, I would have stopped learning years ago. And that would have been a terrible tragedy.

I owe a lot to that school principal, wherever he is. A single compassionate conversation can change a life. Coach, wherever you are, this one’s for you. Thank you.

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