It’s odd to me how much the human condition is affected by criticism. Both of my parents took it hard, especially my Mom. Whether it was the stiff upper lip, guilt as motivator, conformity as mentorship culture they grew up in or the way their parents would “ride them” over perceived short-comings, I do not know. I just know there was a sense that when others were critical it was an especially tough pill to swallow. A chip on one’s shoulders emerges as the years of being told you don’t measure up accumulate. I think that is what led to a tipping point, in the 1960’s, when people just said, “enough!” and adopted a new form of mentoring and adult formation.
It goes by different names; “positive reinforcement”, “non-judgemental encouragement”, “celebrating our uniqueness”, and so on. I remember it well, in spite of having been raised with heaps of guilt and waging fingers my Mom bought the books of the time and did her very best to tell me I could be anything I wanted to be, that I was “special”, that I was brilliant and handsome and destined for greatness. In the early 60’s this type of parenting was the norm and I sat in classroom after classroom with kids who believed they too were brilliant, beautiful and destined for greatness.
Contrary to the popular wisdom, that children are innocent and open and kind and only learn to be mean when they watch adults the Lord of the Flies that are playgrounds outside school buildings have a way of tamping down on one’s enthusiasm for one’s brilliance, beauty and destiny. I would go to school and be told by my classmates that I was dumber than dirt, ugly as sin and destined for reform school and then go home and be told by parents I was soon to be John F. Kennedy, Bobby Orr and Robert Redford all rolled up into one. It was all very confusing.
It took me a long time to make sense of this conflict, and I know I am not alone amongst those of my generation. Oprah, a voice of liberation for my parent’s generation, particularly women, was not helpful to my age group. Whereas Oprah could say to people who’d been raised to feel inferior, never being able to measure up “you are amazing, you are capable, you can do whatever you want” to my generation it just made things worse. We already had been told how “amazing” we were, it was dealing with the reality that gave us heartache.
There was a moment for me when the light came on. What if I was really good at a few things, marginal at many more things, and just terrible at many more? Was that reality so hard to accept? I think for my parent’s generation that likely would sound fairly defeatist, even cruel. But for me and many others like me this self-awareness was a gift from above. Suddenly I could accept that I could make a difference, that I had worth, that I had something to offer. But my confidence was grounded in the humility that there was so much more I did not know, that I had to rely on others to show me the way.
I like to tell people I know a lot about politics, religion and sports and next to nothing about anything else. Often people think I am either using faux humility or lacking in self-confidence but those who know me well understand this assertion is absolutely accurate. It means I have a lot to give to situations where knowing about sports, politics and religion is important, even life-giving. Making conversation with strangers, planning events and helping people express and uncover their own narrative stems from my limited skill set. And these needs are real and not uncommon. But it means the vast majority of experiences require me to admit I know nothing and rely on others to get by. It saves me from the tag “know-it-all” and allows me to enter conversations and relationships with people who understand I have a lot to learn.
Humility is a gift. It opens us up to others. It’s how relationships begin, deepen and take shape.