Saturday, April 23, 2016

Modesty, Heroes, God, and Singers

I had a run for a few years where every time an eatery looked good to me, it would, indeed, turn out to be extraordinarily good. I've long been a skilled chowhound, but for this length of time - a period I called my "streak" - I just couldn't fail.

(It wasn't entirely pleasant. It's hard to enjoy peaks when there are no valleys. What's more, I kept questioning my taste, bringing people along just to confirm that I hadn't lost my discernment. It was all pretty confusing and weird. FWIW, my streak ended during my Chow Tour, in Halifax, where "Gingerbread Haus Bakery" excited me so much that I bought a vast array of their stuff for a tasting among local friends, and we discovered that every bite was simply okay.)

Around that time, I made the mistake of telling a young food writer about my streak, and she reacted spitefully. She thought I was being immodest; that I was boasting.

My mechanic can rebuild a transmission. This is one of the most complex tasks a human being can tackle. If I lived a thousand years, I couldn't learn this skill. So is my mechanic boastful when he confidently notes that this is something he can do? Should he instead mumble "Ooh, geez, I don't know about "rebuild"; I can kinda fool around a little, and sometimes it works out pretty okay...."?

My mechanic certainly takes pride in being good at what he does, but it's not something he would ever think to boast about. Nor would it occur to him to soft-pedal his ability. Soft-pedalers indicate that they find themselves so awesome that they need to tone it down for the inferiors.

There's nothing as boastful as modesty. I wrote a few years ago about a Harvard-educated friend who hemmed and hawed whenever someone asked him where he'd gone to school.
He'll meekly fess up, looking horribly uncomfortable. At some point, I felt compelled to point out to him that, really, Harvard's not that big a deal, and that the pains he takes to soft-pedal it transparently reveal how earth-shakingly impressive he actually deems it.
I'm not saying boasting isn't a drag, or that modesty isn't a virtue. But people have lost perspective on this. Modesty isn't about denying that you can do what you perfectly well know you can do - which, among other things, deprives those around you of being helped out by your forte. Real modesty is the recognition that everybody's got a forte, and Richard Scarry was right: it takes all kinds (and, by pooling our respective expertise, we create a utopian whole). Real modesty is helping people eat better via your extraordinary ability to find good places, and exuberantly tapping other people's skills for the countless areas in which you recognize you're a complete fricking moron.

The kernel of this is hard to express, because humanity is so extremely turned away from this perspective that the words strike us as flat and incomprehensible: doing great stuff doesn't make you great. There are no great men/women; just shitty little rivers.

  • Recognizing this need not be depressing.
  • This is what all those rock and movie stars mean when they deflect credit to "God" or whatever in their awards speeches. This is their clumsy means of expressing that talent works through you, not from you (i.e. doing great stuff doesn't make you great). The really good epiphanies, eurekas, and insights simply arrive; they're not manufactured (where that stuff comes from is unnameable, and "God" is one term we've chosen to name the unnameable).
  • This is why you should always expect to be disappointed when you meet your heroes. It's helpful to remember that humans are fast-calculating farm animals capable of a few transcendent pass-thru magic tricks. Everything beyond that is mere pose.

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