I am trying to take a family picture with Franny’s iPad. They wait expectantly on the sofa as I press one button after another. Nothing works. I see my son, Gabe, squelch a suggestion. He is being kind. Kinder than my grandsons, Eli, 9, and Jack, 6, who are eager to take over and show me how. Soon Franny gives up on me and takes the picture herself. But this defeats the purpose. We want a picture with Franny in it. She’s so often the photographer and rarely included in the pictures. My daughter-in-law, Rachael, hops up and gets it done. I try to cover my humiliation with a joke about old dogs and everyone laughs but the humiliation remains.
Of my many flaws, a lack of humility stands tallest. It’s the rare person who I don’t think could benefit from my insight, the rare conversation that I couldn’t enhance with my analysis. No one would mistake me for a mendicant monk demonstrably grateful for a cup of broth. I may be helpless with technology and comfortable in the role of supplicant to those who are more adroit, but this is the kind of exception that proves the rule.
I was raised in the belief that virtually any problem will yield to intelligent, concerted effort. This “can do” attitude has proven a great asset in my life. It has made me braver and more adventurous. But it has also turned my will into a domineering, godlike, force. When stumped or mystified I don’t look to the heavens or even to friends. I just try harder.
I know that the confidence born of my “can do” attitude has endured beyond its shelf life; and it is faltering. Age is a great teacher. I find myself, more and more often, in humbling situations. Some are comical: I’ve lost about 3 inches in height, for example, and people seem so tall, so imposing to me now. Some are sobering: There are so many things I once could do and cannot do now.
In retirement, I live on the sidelines. From that perspective, I can’t avoid seeing how talented other people are. I see, for instance, that Yolanda, my successor at the Institute for Nonprofit Practice, isn’t an updated version of me; she’s a wholly different person who is more capable of leading a national expansion of the INP than I ever could. I find myself amazed by brilliant, young writers like Ta Nehisi Coates. Where once I might have aspired to be their equal, now know that I won’t be. I’ll need to think in far more modest terms. Living a long life does that. It points to your limits and makes you take notice.
The experience can be brutal and dispiriting but it can be exhilarating too. This is a discovery for me, maybe the most important discovery in this phase of my life.
My view of humility is changing. There are regressions, to be sure, but most of the time I no longer see it as giving in or giving up. It doesn’t seem like something forced on me, imposed by those who are stronger or smarter or more successful. Humility is in the process of separating itself from the humiliation that often accompanied my failures. Sometimes it is the occasion not of shame but of quiet and relaxation. I don’t have to press and perform. I’m off the hook.
Humility hasn’t come naturally to me, neither by psychological inclination nor through religious practice. Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist notions of humility, however seductive, played no part in my childhood and youth. Over the years, their lessons seemed appealing, but I kept them at a distance. That distance is closing now.
Maybe the best news about my budding humility is how much I have to learn. I love to learn. I love to have goals. And I hope that I have plenty time to pursue them.
Of late, I’ve had rare and tantalizing glimpses of this new adventure—moments of humility that open instead of close me.
At those rare times when I begin an activity with a genuine curiosity, when I don’t know what to do or how to think, when I don’t try to impose my ideas and my will on situations, I see them as though for the first time. I am surprised, amazed, fascinated. Humility makes experience fresher, more immediate.
I am learning that humility makes it possible to connect more genuinely to others. I recall so many times that I have argued with people—Franny, for instance—insisting that she sees the truth of my insights. My insistence only pushes her away. Usually, my argument is a projection of myself— “you’d see it this way if you were me.” Eventually, I recognize my failure, my ineffectuality, my powerlessness. Then, at last, I give up. At moments like these, there is a vacuum, an open space. I look at Franny and ask: “what is it she is saying? … What is she trying to teach me?” It’s only then that we touch one another. This is happening more these days.
I have been as arrogant about myself as I have been about others, proud and insistent on my self knowledge, amassed and curated over decades of introspection and observation. But lately I’ve grown skeptical of my proud “knowledge,” as it often consists of frozen insights, good for one period of life but not forever. This realization—it’s not just skepticism—is a little frightening. It tells me that the ground of my being may not be as solid as I had thought. But there’s also freedom in making room for the new.
Years ago, my friend, Bruce Powell, talked with me—in whispered tones, it seemed—about a Kabbalistic notion called “trim tzum.” According to the 16th century Jewish sage, Isaac Luria, when God created the universe, He understood that human beings would be suffocated by a fully determined world. So he receded, just a bit, making room for human beings to exercise their own free will and develop their own searching intelligence.
When I created my world—my understanding of myself and others—through will and intellect, I didn’t know how important it was to make room for the ideas, energies and, maybe, the love of others. I lacked the requisite humility. I now see that the humbling of old age may serve as the key to opening myself to all of them. And I know, though I don’t know how, that if I do, I will find a touch of the divinity I have always questioned, and, as it turns out, may have always been seeking.