A great way to start this piece would be to say, “I haven’t much to say about this topic,” and leave it at that. But, I’m not that humble. I am, in that regard very much an elder-in-training. I want to reflect a moment on this subject because, despite my own inability to be quietly humble, I think that humility is a clear indicator of the presence of an elder. And like many other attributes related to ageing, this seems to be one that is in short supply. With your help, maybe we can slowly change that.
I have, across from where I’m sitting with my laptop, a wooden bust carved by a Shona artist. The Shona are a tribe in Zimbabwa that started carving, primarily stone, in the late 60’s. They are notable for the beautiful and compelling carvings that usually capture the majestic spiritual power of nature. But, for some reason, the carver here took as his subject a human being, an elder of his people. Even at this distance, a few feet a way, around half the planet, in some other cultural time, I can see the compassion and humility the artist found in this old man’s eyes.
He, the old man, is a presence in my life. He looks like Nelson Mandela, but he isn’t, instead he is an elder man, who looks out upon a world of dizzying complexity with a look that is deeply humble. Humility is prized amongst the Shona people. To them, it represents a kind of spiritual attainment, a deep apprehension of our place in the great continuum of Life. I like having him in my living room reminding me of what is truly important. But, his presence also asks something of me. I don’t get to just enjoy him. I don’t just get to take comfort in knowing that he exists somewhere, even if only in the imagination of the artist, I live with this visage of humility as a daily reminder of what it really is to take a place in Creation.
Humility seems to come along with feeling connected. Am I willing to stop being so full of me, so befuddled by my existence that I am constantly striving for some imagined right place in line? Am I ready to give up aspiring to God knows what, to just be, to exist for existence’s sake, instead of my own? Not yet, but he reminds me, that I can, and that I inevitably will. I like the peace I see in his face. It is the peace that passeth all understanding. I see that ageing can bring an experiential knowledge of deep connection, a feeling that inspires and consoles me.
Humility then, seems to ride the experience of connection. It isn’t an attribute of morality. It is informed by on-going experience, an experience, I might add, which is within us, as a species. I spend moments just looking at this old man, this image in my living room, who reminds me that seeing the whole is possible, transformative and deeply present. He stares back at me; when I look into his eyes, he looks into mine. I see the tears that never pass his eyes, and am reminded of the suffering in the world. I see the knowledge there, and am reminded that my life is an on-going lesson. I see the compassion of his look, and am reminded that being here is really something. His presence, by and large, with all of his humility, reminds me just how thankful I am, that I get to have this kind of multi-varied awareness.
Humility often evades me. If I’m honest with myself, it’s a true indicator of my status as an elder-in-training. I don’t mind. I’ve got more to learn. Thankfully! Still staying humble, realizing the true lay of the land, is costing me some of the hubris I’ve been protecting myself with, while it is strengthening my trust in Life, my sense that I’m here for a purpose. I like that sensation; it strengthens me, and enables me to live more fully. I don’t understand it, but it seems, that the fuller I am of myself, the fuller I am also of Life. Humility is strangely a fullness of connection as much as it seems to be an emptiness. It is an acceptance I am learning.
I’ve come to think that humility, the humbling of oneself, is not a denial of having a self, but a responsible placing of that self in a larger context of wholeness. I believe the elder is moving in that direction, and I am following.