In second grade, thinking myself clever, I decided to use my full name, “David Brian Marshall.” Only, I couldn’t spell “Brian” and wrote “Brain” instead. Later in the day, Mrs. Wilkenson called me to her desk—you will have to imagine her thick Texas accent —and said, “Now David, you are a bright, bright boy, but I don’t think you should go around calling yourself a ‘brain.’ Do you want people to think you’ve got the big head?”
This memory is triply humiliating: first, because I could not spell my own middle name, second, because I’d obviously overstepped some hidden boundary by offering it, and third, because I only discovered my humiliation later.
“What’s a ‘beeg haid’?” I asked my brother.
Sometimes I get a glimpse of my true size. Not my physical size—barring over-consumption and under-exercise, that stays about the same—but my size understood as significance. I’m a small man in every sense—less than average height and one of six point seven billion people. I am not famous or influential or accomplished or important. Nonetheless my ego sometimes swells. The universe shifts a little and then the entire solar system circles me. It realigns itself according to complicated and layered physical laws I dictate.
When the shift occurs, my voice takes a different pitch. I’m an authority, and words launch as from some battery of interplanetary rockets. The salvo must be deafening.
Only I don’t hear it.
I have to look out for these moments. I’m apt to express short-sighted opinions, self-interest disguised as righteous indignation, wounds arising from my own oversensitivity, judgments only possible from my particular privilege, self-pity springing from purely personal and relatively minor disappointments, greedy desires for special consideration or honor, needs I’m convinced are really the greater good but are only good for me or my family. I hurt feelings, offend people, say stupid, misguided things, and cross boundaries without seeing them. Often someone must remind me to look around, to acknowledge the scale of my troubles or complaints and recognize my true size.
And I’m not the only one. I see similar shifts in nearly everyone, moments when nice people are suddenly damned important and want some attention paid to them for once. But it’s not for once… or seldom is.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that we become full of ourselves, as natural as plants growing until they’ve exhausted the soil or blocked the sun or choked the progress of their own branches or roots. But I’ve never been able to settle these questions:
- Can ego and confidence compromise?
- Why is pride so often naïve?
- How can we know and comfortably be our true dimensions?
While my moment with Mrs. Wilkenson was an accident, she was right to warn me against the beeg haid. I’ve had to give myself the same warning many times since, along with a prodding reminder—be grateful, be grateful, be grateful. Every good fortune is a gift.
You’re not required to expect more.