Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lessons in Humility

My junior and senior year in high school, I was the piano accompanist for show choir and musicals. I enjoyed the ‘behind-the-scenes’ role. It was just my size. I could perform without being noticed. I liked it that way. My mother recalls, however, me having a little more, uh, shall we say, confidence? ‘Hubris’ might even be appropriate here. She remembers me once commenting that I was ‘the best’ at the school, so, of course, I was the one to sit on that bench and play along.

When I was in fifth grade, my class took an IQ test. The teacher, once the results were in, said she couldn’t tell us what our scores were; she could only tell us the highest score. When she gave us that number, I vividly recall thinking, “Hm. I did pretty well.” I just naturally assumed I was the one who had scored the highest. I didn’t question it for a moment. Was that number mine? I don’t know. I never did find out. But I was more than confident at the time: I was positive.

I’ve had ample opportunity since I was 10 or even 16 to be humbled. And I’ve taken advantage of those opportunities—though not always willingly.

I grew up in a home where we kids were kind of on auto-pilot much of the time. Both of my parents worked, and they didn’t have the time or energy to hover over us to make sure we were doing our homework right or to make sure we wore our helmets when we rode our bikes. They didn’t pay much attention to our friends. They didn’t check our rooms to make sure our beds were made or our clothes picked up. I’m not saying they didn’t care. I'm saying they didn’t coddle or correct.

So when I started to be corrected, I didn’t always take it very well. It’s not that I thought I was perfect; I just thought I didn’t need to be perfect, so why would someone try to make me that way. Good was good enough.

I started writing seriously about five years ago. And I began to learn a whole new brand of humility then. Posting your pride and joy on critique sites for anyone to see, read, and, yep, criticize is opening yourself up to some potentially serious punches to the gut.

When I first started getting back comments like, “This section moves too slowly” or “I’m not convinced here” or “You’re not making this character likable enough,” I would sigh, open my document again, and feel like someone had just told me my piano playing was sloppy or my IQ was actually middle-of-the-road and not the highest in the class at all.

But the more I’ve learned to trust the process and trust the few people who regularly read and comment on my writing, the more excited—yes, excited—I get about their critiques and even criticisms. When they say, “Bobbie, it’s just not working” then I know I have the chance to make it work, make it better. I can take what was good enough in my mind and make it good in someone else’s . . . maybe even make it great.

And that ability to take criticism has spread into other parts of my life as well. Separate from my writing, I’ve been making a conscious effort the last five years or so to not let myself be offended easily, to not take things personally. I’ve tried to learn to separate someone else’s issues from my own. And that’s what taking offense is, really: the lack of humility. I’m not saying everything someone else says is correct and you need to listen and become humble. I’m saying the opposite: they way they’re acting or what they say might have absolutely nothing to do with you, and if you believe it does, you’re also believing you carry way more weight in that person’s life than you truly do. That’s egotism.

Being less prone to taking offense means I can more easily accept the valid criticisms. I should have called the gutter guy before the rain storm leaked water into the basement? You’re absolutely right. I should have. I messed up. That dinner was less than delicious? I agree, kids. I promise not to ever serve curried broccoli soup again.

I’m not aiming for perfection. There’s no such thing, not in writing or in life. But I can make strides toward it and can accept with gratitude and humility others’ efforts in helping me get there. That’s what being part of a writing community—a community much like any other—has taught me.


mnmsalyer said...

I see good food for thought at the end, as well as good perspective and evidence of growth. I have to say, though, that you were pretty darned outstanding on the piano. We were lucky to have you on the keys - behind the group, in the pit, in front of the group, or where ever. You weren't half bad when you sang, too. (I smile every time I remember our lovely rendition of "Sweet Violets" and hope I can get one of my kids to perform it with a friend some day.)

You assumed the highest IQ was yours? It may well have been yours, but it's still pretty funny that you had no doubt.

Bobbie said...

Thanks, Marian. Those were good times and good days. I'm lucky when I get to spend more than 10 minutes at the piano even once a month now. I do miss it.

And I did assume the highest IQ was mine. Isn't that awful? I just realized it was 4th grade, not 5th. I don't know what made me so sure it was mine though. I wonder how many other kids thought the same thing.