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To understand humility, it’s often easiest to start with its opposite: pride. In his book The Seven Deadly Sins, Reverend James Stalker defines pride as “the inordinate assertion of self.” In other words, pride is an inflated sense of our own importance or status or accomplishments. When we’re prideful, we hold ourselves in such high esteem it’s difficult to recognize the value and importance of the people around us. “It’s all about me!” we think. Letting go of that self-focus and adopting a more humble attitude can drastically improve the enjoyment in your life and the lives of the people you care about. It’s a lesson I hadn’t learned very well until one Thanksgiving Day, eight years into my marriage.
On Thanksgiving Day, 2003, my wife Lisa and I were hosting dinner at our house with a few guests, including my sister Val and Lisa’s mother, Jeannie. And as cliché as it may be, before the meal had even been served, I had already had enough of my mother-in-law’s company. Out on the back patio, I complained to my sister about how I thought Jeannie had made too much of a production of how she had to be the one to cut the turkey because it had to be done just so. I explained how I thought she was a little too proud of her electric carving knife, how she had to cut exactly the right sized pieces, and how one just couldn’t appreciate the meal without a properly cut bird.
While I blathered on with my nitpicking, my sister smiled with a knowing look on her face. Then she told me she recalled having a similar frustration a decade earlier with our grandfather, Ping. In Ping’s later years, Val had become his full-time caregiver. She told me about how he tried to micromanage her every move. “He told me exactly how to set the thermostat, and which way to put the mail in the mailbox so the mailman would be sure to see it. I was a grown woman! Did he think I hadn’t picked up mail at my own house for the past twenty years? Did he think I hadn’t figured out how to set a thermostat yet?”
At that point, I assumed my sister was just commiserating with me. But I soon realized she was actually teaching me a valuable lesson in humility.
Continuing her story, she explained that she ended up so frustrated with Ping that her patience became short and her temper even shorter. Then she started thinking about him and how his life had been up until just a few years earlier. His working career began when he had to drop out of school in the fourth grade to help support his family, and it ended some eight decades later when he retired at the age of eighty-nine. He worked hard his whole life, was one of the most generous men either of us has ever known, and by then was in his nineties and in the final few years of life.
What Val realized was that he had spent the past several decades as a leader in his industry, at times managing large teams of people. He was used to telling people how to do their jobs more effectively. “
Then all of a sudden,” she said, “he wasn’t in charge of anyone, except for me.”
Her conclusion from this soul searching was this: “It’s late in the game for him. He’s close to the end. I don’t need to try to change him. I need to change me. He just wants to feel useful like he did for so many years. And my pride was getting in the way of that. It’s not going to hurt me to have him give me more instructions than I need. But it will make him feel useful again.”
That’s when Val turned the analogy to my problem. Jeannie had just retired a few months earlier from her own forty-two-year career. As a single parent, she was used to providing for a family. But now her only child was all grown up and married and had a family of her own. For years, Jeannie was the one who cooked the turkey and hosted Thanksgiving dinner. Now she was a guest waiting to be served. The only thing she wanted was to feel useful again and maybe get a little acknowledgment for her contribution. Who was I to begrudge her that very small and understandable desire? All it would take on my part was a little less pride and a little more humility for the woman who raised the mother of my children.
Indeed. It was an eye-opening realization and the beginning of the better half of our Thanksgiving Day that year. More important, it was also the beginning of a much-improved relationship with my mother-in-law.
As with all the stories in these podcasts, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
- In what ways is pride the opposite of humility?
- How was letting her grandfather micromanage her an act of humility on Val’s part?
- Have you ever been in a situation where a friend of yours spent most of his or her time bragging about something you accomplished instead of talking about him- or herself? How is that an act of humility?
- When is a time you might not want to be humble?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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