I have scratched humility off the list of virtues I need. Growing old is humbling enough. I, of course, have many other areas that need attention. But aging is doing a fine job of keeping me humble.
Earlier this school year, I couldn’t find my briefcase. I was quite certain that I had left it at school in my office. After looking for it everywhere, I remembered that the last time I used it, I had moved it from a chair and put it on the trash can next to my desk. I am certain the new janitor assumed it was part of the trash and disposed of it.
My briefcase, like me, was a wreck. The stitching had unraveled, and latches were loose. I had backed over it once in the driveway. I never asked the janitor about it because I had, after all, put it on the trash can, and it did look ready for the dump. I just took it as a sign that my decision to retire this spring was right.
The surgery to remove my prostate was also humbling. The whole industry built around prostate problems moves patients through the process quickly and without much concern for their dignity. The catheter was uncomfortable and embarrassing. I have been teaching in sweatpants. I taught one class with urine bag strapped to my leg, and I have traded my briefcase for a diaper bag until everything heals. I am too often like a pitcher adjusting his “cup” before a pitch—but without a fast ball. None of this is terrible compared to what many go through regularly. But it is all humbling. Post-surgery, a good bowel movement and good day are the same thing.
American culture and its obsession with youth has also humbled me. I can barely keep up with technological innovations even though I teach online courses. In my attempts to connect literature to popular culture, I quickly realize all my references to The Beatles or Simon and Garfunkel are useless. My mention of Cardi B. only brings embarrassed giggles from my students.
In academia, fads sweep through so quickly that a teacher is out of date a few years out of graduate school. After a three decades, one feels like a dinosaur. If one does learn the current passwords of academic respectability, it is nearly impossible, at my age, to use them without irony. Pride in my wealth of experience and wisdom is no temptation. The longer I live, the less I know and the less certain I am about what I know.
Yesterday as we were driving down the hill to the Presbyterian church, my grandson, Ari, declared, “Pa is famous!” My name was on the reader board as the guest speaker. This was both funny and humbling. It is wonderful that the pinnacle of my fame is a reader board in front of little church in Myrtle Point.
Pride has always been regarded, rightly, as one of the deadliest sins. So I suppose, I should be careful not to be proud of my humility—if that is even possible. Nevertheless, not having to work on humility will give me time to work on the discipline of joy—lest I become an old man humbly mumbling and grumbling into his beard.