Lessons in Humility (1)

Everyday People

Some years ago, I was walking in the center of my hometown, Grenoble, in France.

I was with my lifelong friend Matthieu, from high school. Two students asked us if they could interview us for a class project, we said yes.

Their question to each of us was:

Who is a hero for you? (Maybe they asked about a role models, I am not sure.)

I started answering:

I think I said Gandhi, for all his qualities of nonviolence, wisdom, acting and having an impact at a large scale. So obvious, right?

My friend said something like:

“We often look for superheroes in very well known people, but there are ordinary people who do extraordinary things.”

At first, I secretly judged my friend, and judged his answer in my mind:

“Yeah, well ordinary people are not those who change the world.”

Fast forward a few years. Here I am, in San Francisco. Two men are rebuilding the back stairs of the house I am living in. I am chatting with one of them one day. His name is Bautista, and as I listen to him, I hear more about his story:

He comes from El Salvador, which he left after some challenging circumstances. He had enlisted in the Salvadorean army at age 15, and served there for three years before some violence erupted in his neighborhood. He had to leave his wife and children behind, and fled to the U.S.

He wakes up everyday at 3:30am. He prays. He cleans up his place. He practices a 1-hour workout (he has been doing this for years now). That’s a real-life more hardcore version of the 5AM Club.

Everyday, people like Bautista change the world. Everyday people, who are superheroes in disguise. My friend Matthieu was right, and I couldn’t see it at the time (my mind was too busy judging and trying to be right).

A lesson in Humility.

South-East Asia

Twelve years ago, I was travelling in Southeast Asia. I been a little neglectful in my way of cutting a fingernail on my right big toe. I left it as it was. As I was backpacking in Laos, it got infected. I didn’t treat it (in Europe, these things would solve themselves on their own, so I was in the habit of letting parts of my body heal by themselves).

The humid and warm conditions of South-East Asia were different. After a few more days, my toe became white. It was sore and swelling. A French woman who was travelling with me advised that I get it checked at the local hospital. I did:

It was bad, the doctor said. He said he highly recommended to cut it open, and pull out my toenail on the spot. I wasn’t prepared for this. I had come in to check-in for medical advice, I was on holidays just wanting to explore the region, and here I was asked to do an impromptu surgical act. I felt that I had no choice.

The doctor took me in one of the hospital’s small “operating room”, which looked more like a Spartan’s room in a very basic hospital. (I knew we were highly privileged in the industrialized West with our hospitals, but that was a first hand experience, and it could easily have been worse).

The doctor had me lie on a bed, and planted a needle in my toe to inject the anesthesia.

That was probably one of the most intense physical pains I ever felt in my life. I think I started crying at that point.

In that moment, I simultaneously had a thought of compassion for all the people around the world who were being tortured, and in particular tortures involving fingernails. (I had started to read about Buddhism, which was starting to bear fruit already). Once he thought the anesthesia was taking effect, the doctor took a pair of thongs, and started to pull my toenail out.

The problem was: the anesthesia was not having it’s full effect yet, it hurt like hell. (At the time, I was not yet practicing meditation which could have helped a lot with processing and feeling the pain).

I clung to the metal leg of the hospital bed, and felt ashamed for crying like a baby. The doctor looked at me, and seemed to be puzzled by my attitude. He said: “Why are you crying? Everything is OK.”

It was not. Not for me. I was in deep pain.

After a few instants of pulling, the doctor showed me the bloody nail he had pulled off like a trophy. He seemed more relieved than I was. He bandaged my bloody toe, and the pain started to dissipate.

We swiftly shifted to the admin part: The doctor prescribed a few antibiotics and medicine to take care of my toe over the next few weeks.  I paid with cash, and as the doctor opened the door to let me out of the room, I looked around in the main hallway, almost in shock:

There was a child, maybe 7 or 8 years old, hopping on one foot. That child didn’t seem sad. That child was not crying like I had been. The other foot had been cut off, which I assumed followed an accident with a landmine. Indeed, although the use of landmines has decreased over the last decade, they are unfortunately still common in several countries, including Laos and Cambodia.

Witnessing that scene, I felt even more shame: I felt shame for feeling pain for my little toenail, when a kid had had their leg removed and was simply hopping in the hallway without complaining.

Lesson in Humility.

(Yes, today I would know that you don’t need to feel shame for what you think, feel, do or don’t do, as each person reacts to the best way given who they are in the moment and their circumstances. But the lesson in humility remains).

More to come next week.

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