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The Humble Man

[Going through some old journals, I came across some entries about an encounter I had once upon a time in a far away land — by which I mean at a pub in Vancouver about seven years ago.  This is the story, as best as I can piece it together now.]

I was standing at a urinal looking at a poster advertising a beer that probably had a lower alcohol content than  my piss when the guy who was at the table next to me, the guy who kept making jokes about the massive size of his dick (which prompted some  seemingly good-natured eye-rolling from his tablemates), walked in and stood at the urinal next to me.

“Moment of truth,” I said to myself.

The fellow glanced over at me when I spoke but  I don’t know if he heard exactly what I had said or if he was simply wondering why the guy at the other urinal was talking to himself.

Back at my table later that night, I stopped writing and closed my computer.  I had passed the point of drunk-creative and was more at the stage of drunk-happy-just-to-do-nothing-but-drink-more.  I continued to order pints and step out to the patio every now and again for a smoke. I stayed under the overhang and watched the rain appear and disappear as it blew beneath the streetlights.  There are joys to drinking at night in every season — in the spring when the weather first warms up and you can go to a patio for the first time, in the summer at a campsite by the ocean with the mountains rising up behind you, in the winter cuddled up under a blanket and trading secret kisses with a lover — but always in the fall in the rain with the wind blowing was when I felt most wild and free.

When I returned to my table, I noticed that the dick next to me was now by himself.  He nodded at me and I smiled because I like talking to strangers when I’m drunk.  I ask them to tell me things people almost never discuss in bars when they are trying to get laid, trying to get happy, or trying to forget – their greatest joys, their hidden sorrows, their hopes and dreams – and it’s amazing what people will tell me when they, too, are drunk and find someone who is willing to listen.  So, yes, I smiled and nodded and he got up and asked to bum a cigarette.

“I reckon I’ll have another as well.”  He was talking about himself before we got out the door and I took that as a good sign.  Lighting up, I took advantage of his first drag to say: “Tell me a secret you’ve never told anyone else.”  He paused and eyeballed me awhile while he cupped his cigarette in his hand and blew smoke out of the side of his mouth.  Then, as best as I can recollect it, this is what he said:

“I am a humble man.  This gives me a sense of satisfaction because, of all the virtues, humility is the most elusive.  I do not know any other humble people – which is not to say that they don’t exist but the nature of humility is such that, where it exists, it is invisible to all but the one who possesses it.  The reason for humility’s elusiveness and invisibility is the way in which it differs from other virtues.  The other virtues are manifested in and by certain actions.  As far as the other virtues are concerned, you are what you do.  The being is the doing, nothing more, nothing less.  This is why all the virtues function as tautologies when you work to define them – chastity is being chaste, honesty is being honest, kindness is being kind, courage is being courageous, and so on.  These virtues exist when they are performed in a way where we experience them as such (and only then) and so one should never confuse feeling virtuous for acting virtuous (which is precisely the mistake most people make).  With most virtues the key is to focus on the external (actions, performances) and demote the internal (feelings, beliefs). The lie religious folks learn is that the pursuit of the virtues is a spiritual pursuit.  It actually is a material pursuit.

“But humility is very different.  It is the only virtue where your inner state matters more than how others experience your actions.  Because as soon as others experience you as being or acting humble, your state of humility becomes something that is weighed and judged in relation to others.  It becomes a comparative and inescapably competitive kind of thing.  Thus, on this basis, a person can be more or less humble than others and very quickly how humble a person is said to be, can become a great source of secret pride.  Show me the person whom others consider to be the humblest person they know and nine times out of ten you will have found the vainest person in the room. (In this regard please note that I did not say that I am the humblest person I know.  I am simply the only humble person I know and there is a world of difference between these two statements.)

“Hence, and here I will tell you my secret, the key to humility is acting in such a way that others come to believe that you are arrogant or cocky or vain.  The art in doing this well is doing it in a way that doesn’t make others feel belittled.  If done well, people will think you are a little, or perhaps more than a little, full of yourself but they won’t think that you’re an asshole.  They’ll still love you and they’ll love you, in part, because despite your strengths, you still have a fairly visible flaw – you’re just a little too proud.

“There are two immediate benefits to this: first, this makes you more likable and more relateable.  If you’re too perfect, too good at exercising all the virtues, if you’re labeled as the kind guy, the honest guy, the chaste guy, the always all the time virtuous guy, people are going to resent you or, more commonly, simply feel alienated from you.  What do you have to do with them?  But if you have an obvious flaw – like being too into yourself or joking a bit too much about the size of your dick – then people feel like you’re still on their level or, just as likely, below their level, and then they are more likely to be kind to you or show you grace.  Most people are viewing everything as a competition and if they feel they’ve beaten you in a way, then they are more inclined to be kind to you — so it goes with magnanimity.  Victors only be merciful after they triumph and not before.  So if you want to experience a little more kindness, make sure that people have a reason to believe you aren’t better than them.

“Secondly, and more important for the actual pursuit of humility, is that those who pursue humility out of vanity – those who secretly pride themselves on how humble they are – will endure any number of humiliations – you can spit on them, get them to plunge every clogged toilet they ever come across, have them cut out your ingrown toenails, insult their manhood in front of the girls they like, call ‘em every name in the book, and they will endure these things without a single complaint – but one thing they cannot abide is the thought of other people thinking of them as vain.  Hence, pursuing a way of being where others cannot help but conclude you’re a bit of a cocky prick is a great way to kill off that desire in yourself (and it’s there, in all of us except for a blessed few — by which I mean mostly very simple-minded people — it is there).”

Here, he paused to butt out the second cigarette I had given him.  He zipped up his jacket and pulled his hood over his head.  We both sat and thought awhile, him doing more of the thinking and me doing more of the sitting as I was too drunk to do much else, and then he added the following lines:

“Perhaps you don’t believe me.  Perhaps you think I’m full of shit and actually the most arrogant fellow you’ve met in awhile.  Who, after all, claims to be humble?  Who claims to be the only humble person he or she knows?  I do.  That is exactly what I claim.  But if you see that as vanity, then I take that as proof that I am going about things the right way.”

After that there wasn’t much else to say.  We went back inside and he mumbled something about using the bathroom again.  He hadn’t made it back to his table by the time I cleared my bill and left.


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