It Can Take a Hard Lesson to Break the Back of Arrogance
It is true humility recognizes the value in others, but there’s another face of humility. Humility also understands our limits. It sees the ragged edges of our character knowing we are unfinished. I began to understand this with a single drink of water.
When I was young and arrogant I carried about 70 lbs of dive equipment down wild trails of the Yucatan. It was sticky, hot and humid. My wet shirt and shorts clung like ghastly velvet wallpaper pasted to my sweating body. Mosquitoes, gnats and unidentified bees swirled about in the steamy air.
I was tired and I was angry.
A group of us had been cave diving near jungle-clad Mayan ruins. It wasn’t too bad walking out to the site at dawn, but walking back to the village after the daily rains and the tropical sun, the evening hike was unpleasant and a little mean.
The two young guys with our guide wouldn’t carry the large dive bag, it was too heavy for them. Being the youngest guy in our group, I volunteered. I was bigger, stronger and full of myself. I thought I’d show those young Mayans what a man could do.
After two hours of watching our “porters” carrying the light bags ahead of me, I was miserable and angrier with every step.
I watched those Mayan men walk deftly down the trail through tangles of roots and vines. They knew how much they could carry and didn’t worry about impressing anyone. I should have learned from their example, but I was too full of ill-founded pride.
When we finally reached the outskirts of town, we stopped by an old well to catch our breath. I must have lost about ten pounds in sweat.
“Is the well OK?” We asked through our Spanish to Mayan translator.
“Sure, sure well is good,” the guide waved as he went to arrange a meal for the party.
Without hesitation, I raised the well’s bucket and filled my empty canteen with cool water. I drank most of my canteen with deep, greedy gulps.
As the next member of our party lowered the bucket for his water, an old man emerged from the trees.
“No! No! Esta malo,” he said pointing to the well.
I could feel the water sloshing around in my empty stomach. Our group turned to me at once, nervous at first, then my friend Jim started to laugh.
“I guess we’ll find out how just how malo it is”
“Ah, it’s probably not that bad, tasted fine to me,” I said pouring the rest of my canteen onto the ground.
The guide returned and started arguing with the old man in Mayan. The old man walked away shaking his head and muttering in Mayan. We asked the guide about the well and the guide shrugged his shoulders.
I worried at first, but as the evening wore on I felt fine. We enjoyed a huge dinner and headed into town where some obscure celebration was taking place. There was dancing, singing and a flurry of hazardous fireworks. Small children tossed about sticks of dynamite, and rockets, that seemed to be Russian military surplus, arching wildly and unpredictably through the night.
We drank great amounts of local beer, ate more, dancing enthusiastically and badly. We laughed and partied with a backdrop of explosive local color.
Later I noticed the first worrying rumbles from my gut. “Those beans and chili burritos are joining the party,” I thought, then dismissed it as a mere nuisance.
More beer, more chili, and more “dancing.”
Then, at some groggy point in the night, alarms sounded. My stomach started back flips and a series of maneuvers obviously meant to dislodge itself from my body. In moments I had to find a restroom – immediately.
I lost sight of my friends and had no time to search. “Bano! De Bano!” I pleaded with passing strangers. I rushed where fingers pointed. Behind an old municipal building I found a door labeled ‘Banos.’
Frantic, I fumbled with the rattling doorknob, and stepped into the dark room. Sliding my hands up and down the rough, sticky walls I failed to find a light switch. I felt something on my head. “Ah, a pull switch,” I thought yanking the chain. A dim yellow bulb blinked on and I beheld a sight that has haunted me to this day.
I could just make out a cement bench beneath squirming layers of human excrement, maggots, beetles, roaches and huge coppery centipedes. Dark turds lounged about the bench and floor like grotesque patrons of a sewage spa. A black, gaping hole opened in the middle of the bench like the trap-door to inconceivable nightmares. There was brown splatter on the walls and, God help me, thick blotches on the ceiling that hung down like moist, brown stalactites. For a fraction of a second I wondered how the hell that was even possible. In my shock, I inhaled a single breath. Aaaagh!! The smell was beyond description.
I turned to flee, sandals sticking a moment in the thick puddle on the floor.
I ran for the nearest jungle in desperate pain.
Within fifty yards, I found the cover of trees. Madly I unbuttoned my shorts – to late. Another explosion echoed through the town. The boxers were finished. I stripped down and held on to a tree as I erupted again and again.
When things calmed down, I kicked a shallow grave and buried the boxers. I wiped with leaves and pulled up my shorts. I got about four steps before my bowels exploded even more violently. Off came the heavy shorts and I lurched to another tree.
Twenty minutes of cramping pain, moaning and groaning I was empty. I think a left a kidney behind when I finally staggered from the jungle, plaid shirt wrapped around my bare ass. I must have looked like a zombie Scotsman emerging from the trees.
Children and old people ran from me as I reeled my way through town. At one point I recognized the young man who couldn’t carry the dive bag. He stared, dumfounded then turned and quickly walked away.
Guess I showed him.
I found our car and crawled into the back seat. At least the car was a rental. My friends got me back to our rented hut where I spent a feverish day in a hammock. Sweating, shivering and swatting away mosquitoes, I had time to think.
I thought about those the Mayans who refused the too heavy loads and moved easy. They were wise enough to walk without the burden of pride.
The world can bring you down in a moment, with an army, divorce, financial ruin or a nasty bacteria. It will recenter your pride and shatter your arrogance – If you’re lucky.
Arrogance poisons the soul.
Arrogance leaves you vulnerable. It places your worth in fragile illusions at the expense of growth. Humility is powerful because it is a virtue that facilitates growth.
The arrogant man is drunk on his reflection, thinking himself complete. His soul will atrophy and wither, dying alone in a coffin of mirrors.
The humble man knows he is unfinished. He is open to the day’s lessons, the wisdom of others and the demands of growth. His soul knows love and beauty while growing through life.
I was arrogant and blind, but life slapped me down and pierced the illusions of my arrogance.
Often I think back to that night in the Yucatan, grateful for its lesson. I learned a little humility and I began to grow.
For me, the well wasn’t malo after all.