Seeking the Universal

The village was hot, dusty, dirty, and smelled a lot like the scrawny cow that lay in the empty lot, nonchalant in its holiness. I was in northwest Nepal. Our little group was on the second day of a bone-rattling journey in an ancient Tata bus from Katmandu to the Karnali River. We had stopped for lunch in a place maps forgot. Our restaurant was a collection of ramshackle old picnic tables, six feet off the road, with black, rusty oil drums converted to smoke-belching outdoor ovens. I was swatting flies, and swallowing a mashed rice and vegetable concoction, mixed with a scorching brown sauce. It was all great. Then, a young woman I would never meet made it even better.

She was about twenty-five or thirty years old, wearing a simple dress and flip flops and walking slowly along the road with her daughter, who looked about two. The little girl fell. She wailed. Mom knelt. She rubbed the knee. She kissed it. There was a hug. The crying stopped. And off they went. The universal happened. How many parents, I thought, on that very day, perhaps at that very moment, had done exactly the same thing?

Seeking the Universal

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We pride ourselves on our individuality. We plot our lives and careers and make our way but the universe has a way of smiling when we do. I think of a group of friends I’ve been lucky enough to have and love since university. At the beginning, our conversations were mostly about girls. Then it was about getting married and we attended each other’s weddings. Then we talked mostly about jobs and kids. Now we discuss when we’ll retire and our latest aches and pains. We have lived different lives, in different cities, and been cheered by different celebrations and rocked by different tragedies but fundamentally, we’ve been on the same journey and handled much the same things in much the same ways.

Abraham Maslow understood. He was a psychologist who, rather than studying mentally ill people, examined apparently healthy, well-adjusted, college-educated folks who appeared to be happy and doing well. He determined that we all need the same things. We need the basics of food, shelter, and safety, and then a feeling of being loved and belonging to a group. We all want our lives to have a witness. With all that in place we can make a positive difference to someone else and that, he said, is happiness. Everything else, everything, is by the by.

Maslow took years to come up with his notion of a hierarchy of needs and spent more years explaining it. The young woman in Nepal taught her lesson in thirty seconds. We need to get over ourselves. We need to watch and listen. The universe is trying to teach us about the universal; those truths that transcend.

If allowed to do so, the universal can inform our thoughts about what our government should be doing and not doing. The universal can help us when cringing at a newscast showing people being bombed by terrorists or by planes seeking to stop the terrorists. It can shape our reaction to seeing climate change and corruption starve children in one part of the world and a greedy few allowing the poisoning and starving of more children in another. The universal can affect our opinion of folks approaching from outside our gates, wanting only to step upon the first rungs of Maslow’s ladder.

A year after I left Nepal, its government collapsed. Maoist rebels took control. Corrupt leaders had tried to maintain power with power; they had bought and used more guns. The Maoists had won the support of the people by living among them. Their greatest tactic in winning hearts was to dig wells and build latrines and schools in little villages like the one at which I had stopped. They understood Maslow. They understood the universal. They knew that our happiness is based not on the size of our wallets but the content of our hearts. They understood that the universal is found not in the palaces of the kings or the ones we choose to sometimes gather around ourselves to hide within, but rather, in places where Moms kiss skinned knees and make it all better.

The universal is all around us. I swear, it’s right there. If we pause for just a moment from busily making our apparently unique way in our apparently unique lives, we’ll see it. And if we really see it, we’ll be humbled, and changed.

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The Power of Humility

If the universe is infinite then you are at its very centre. The notion is momentarily intoxicating until you realize that so is everywhere and everyone else. Twin that thought with the three or four score we’ll be here while the universe celebrates its 13.8 billionth birthday. Both facts invite humility just as we need more of the stuff.

Humility is not the surrender of self-confidence or the abandonment of ambition. Rather, it is the conquering of the self-defeating twin demons of ego and narcissism. Humility offers the road to happiness and ticket to redemption.

With humility, accomplishment can be celebrated as the team effort it always is; the immediate team with which you attained the goal and the accident of your birth that put you at the right time in history, the right place on Earth, and with the right genes and health and doses of luck and ability to work in the first place. No team can thrive without humility. Without humility, a boss can only be a bully and a parent only a boss.

The Power of Humility

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These, I believe, are humility’s three most important lessons:

1. Cool is a Myth: I recall the day it happened. I was with colleagues on a Friday afternoon when it was whispered, “Look over there. All the young people are deciding what they’re going to do tonight.” My eyes widened. How did that happen? I thought I was one of the young people.

Most people in their twenties think they’re cool. Most in their thirties worry that they are no longer cool. In their forties, many swear they don’t care about no longer being cool. Most folks in their fifties realize they were never really cool at all.

Test yourself at the next wedding or party. Try to find that person on the dance floor that made you giggle as a teenager. Can’t find him? Then it’s probably you.

Rather than standing as King Canute on the thundering, relentless shore, humility offers the option of laughter, the tranquility of acceptance, and comfort in one’s inevitably aging skin.

2. There’s Always Someone Better: I have played guitar since I was nine years old. I’ve played and sung in bars, clubs, and coffee houses and my band still plays a monthly gig at Lakefield’s Canoe and Paddle pub.

Last Sunday I was plugged in and enjoying a loping run along the river when Brian Setzer’s version of Mystery Train stopped me in my sweaty tracks. His guitar work was stunning, masterful, and unearthly. I clicked over to YouTube to hear more of his work of which I had always been sort of aware but never paid adequate attention to. He makes the guitar sing.

Back home, my trusty Gretsch felt like a fence post in my arms. I resisted the urge to put it on eBay. Only slowly did I regain my composure and re-dedicate myself to the instrument.

Humility allows the realization that not being the best, or even in the same ballpark as the best, is never a reason to quit or stop trying to improve. Humility invites us to imagine the tragic silence of a forest where only birds with the best voices sing and then find our song.

3. Some Things Can’t Be Fixed: Last Wednesday I held my three and a half month old granddaughter. I know how lucky I am that she and her sister live so close and that I see them nearly every day. On this morning, however, she was screaming. Tears flooded her squinting eyes as she launched into the vibrating cry that shakes parent’s and grandparent’s souls.

Her first tooth was poking through with the pain that, I am told, would drop any adult to their knees. Worse, is that infants live in the moment and so, in their minds, the agony will never go away. Worse still, for me at least, was that beyond the gel, teething toy, and cooing comfort of the gentle sway, there was nothing I could do, nothing.

Sometimes there is, indeed, nothing you can do. Sometimes, no matter who we are or who in our society to whom we turn, it can be neither avoided nor fixed. Pain will be suffered, disease will strike, an accident will happen, and a loss so devastating as to urge quitting it all will occur. Character is not made in those moments, it is revealed. Humility is character’s handmaiden.

The Power of Humility..

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So let’s praise the examined life, the charm of folly, the seeking of goals rather than credit, the experience rather than the picture, and the humble acceptance that we are what we are for the speck of time we’re here. With humility as our guide, our brief journey will be a whole lot happier for ourselves, for those with whom we work and play, and especially for those we love and love us back and make the trip worth taking.

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