I had just returned from a wonderful weekend with my boyfriend. Though I’d planned to take the bus, we awoke to heavy snow and he insisted on buying me a train ticket. From the Back Bay train station, I walked to a coffee shop to pass the hour before a class started.
Sitting at a table, I saw an older man, with a full beard of salt and pepper, bundled up in a winter coat and Red Sox cap; he was reading until I finished ordering my drink, when I turned and we made eye contact. I sat at my own table and picked up the book I’d just started. The man gathered his things and before leaving, he stopped at my table and spoke to me.
“I used to be an English professor at Boston University. On the first day of class, I always asked my students for their definition of humility. They never had much of anything to say. What’s your definition?”
I ventured, “the ability to stand before someone with no pride or expectations.”
“That’s true. I always said that humility is the ability to accept what God puts before you.” With that, he placed two small objects on my table, said “Accept what is placed before you,” smiled, and walked out without looking back.
This is not a normal occurrence, especially in Boston, among people who suffer from what I’ve dubbed the New England chill – Stranger Danger runs deep in these here parts. So when something so unusual happens, I must stop and think, what does it mean? What is there to learn from this?
As someone who has admitted she has no power over alcohol (not to mention someone who regularly airs what could be construed as her dirty laundry for all to peruse), humility has become a frequent companion.
I was curious about the actual definition of the word, knowing how we tend to attach our own interpretations to words and evolve them over time into a unique definition. Merriam Webster defines humility as “the quality or state of being humble.”
I think I prefer the definition of my unknown benefactor, which further interprets that of M-W.
Accepting what is placed before you sounds easy enough. But by deduction, accepting what is placed before you also entails not dwelling on what is not placed before you. Implicit in this is accepting just how much is unknown and how little you can actually control. This is especially problematic for me.
Like everyone, I’ve experienced my share of pain and loss. I felt each of those hurts deeply and, like my experience today, tried to learn from them.
Here’s the tricky part: To avoid future hurts, my mind wants to prepare itself, to anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong so that when the shit inevitably hits the fan, I’ll be ready and – wait for it – it will hurt less.
Unfortunately, things don’t work that way. Not only can you never imagine the thing that eventually does smack you upside the head, but this sort of mental disaster preparedness can actually interfere with ‘what is,’ potentially altering its course, sabotaging it, or at least compromising your experience of it. It’s a no-win situation.
I think that accepting what is placed before you is similar to what Byron Katie refers to as loving what is. What is, after all, is all there is – all you have. What’s not to love? And while it’s not generally considered positive to ignore something, paying any attention to what is not, can’t help you, can’t save you.