On Deserving

At the end of her memoir Black Ice, Lorene Carey recalls sitting through commencement and awards as one of the first African-American graduates of St. Paul’s and wondering whether she would receive an award, whether she would do any more than simply graduate.

She feels a “greedy girl” roiling inside her and silently asks when she will get her due, when she will receive the credit she’s absolutely certain she deserves.

I applaud her courage because, though I’ve felt exactly what she did during that moment, it’s hard for me to confess it. I tell myself only doing matters. Getting credit is a bonus, but I can never entirely convince myself. At some point, a voice squeaks out, “What about me? What about all I’ve done? Where’s my award?”

I’ve written enough about reconciling ambition and humility and wish I could be done with it. I’d love nothing more than to wake up tomorrow in a Buddha state, done with striving and content with being.

In my fantasy, I picture myself as Spock from Star Trek. Baited by Bones and prodded to argue with being insulted, I say, “You proceed from a false assumption. I have no ego to bruise.”

Humility is my highest value and my cruelest master. When people you like feel no misgivings about arguing for their due, their advantage, their talents and skills, you can’t help wondering if something is wrong with you.

Biologically, an organism seeks not just survival but success. My greedy guy is continual torture. “Stand up for yourself!” the inner voice cries, “don’t be a pushover, don’t let anyone take you for granted!” “I’m deserving!” it screams. I can’t help listening sometimes—I know some people would say I should listen always—but I wish I could have my ego excised in an ego-ectomy.

Once, studying the Italian Renaissance, I encountered a passage making much of artists signing their work. It attributed technical leaps to individualism and the advent of artistic celebrity. It’s true we work hardest for ourselves, and outdoing others must have contributed considerably to the innovative and revolutionary beauty these artists created. Still, I’d rather believe they loved other artists’ work too, celebrated rivals’ efforts, and reveled in painting and sculpting more than in making names for themselves.

Delusional, I know. I wish I could be happy simply creating, doing my job as best I can, trying to be the person I’d like to be…without wanting to be acknowledged, lauded… or thanked even.

I suppose, however, that’s impossible. “One may understand the cosmos,” G. K. Chesterton said, “but never the ego.”

1 Comment

Filed under Anxiety, Buddhism, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, Gratitude, Identity, Laments, life, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Worry

One response to “On Deserving

  1. I resonate with your point of view in general but this is right on the mark for me. I don’t know anyone else in my blogosphere world who addresses the issue of humility like you do. It is a sacred concept in my world. It is a state of mind that, for me, invites all sorts of influences into my studio that I would otherwise miss. I think of it as a kind of listening.

    And what a great quote from Chesterton. That’s a keeper. Thanks for this.

    Humility is certainly an underrated virtue in this age of self-esteem. When I chide students for bragging or gloating, some look at me like I’ve told them to stop breathing. They do admire the modesty of the kid who keeps quiet about his success, but they perceive his modesty as kindly and generously not showing them up. I’m not sure how many understand the value of humility in an absolute sense, that a humble perspective might make a person more appreciative, receptive, and understanding, that humility IS listening. It’s hard to learn when you think you have little to learn, and I run into many students who consider themselves great just as they are and who resent anyone who doesn’t appreciate them and their talents sufficiently. As this post suggests, I feel that way too sometimes—everyone wants to be appreciated—but I know to fight the feeling that appreciation is my due. From my perspective, the celebration of “self-esteem” as an inalienable right often stunts students’ growth instead of empowering them.

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