The Humble Art of Showing Up

It happened again. Someone paid me a compliment. To my face. A friend was by my side in that exquisitely excruciating moment and she laughed and ordered me to “take it! I can literally see you cringing away,” she said. “It’s true. You deserve this.”

I was grateful for her. Grateful for the kind words someone took the effort to outloud to me.

But my powerful reflex was to duck.

I had a recurring dream, when I was a kid. About being in war. An old-timey kind of war, primitive, brutal, honest, where the soldiers just lined up in two lines facing each other across a battle field and started shooting. When the order came down to fire, in my terror of dying, I looked around, and jumped quickly backwards, behind a pile of rocks and dirt, ducked my head down, took cover. I hid. Soon enough that squirmish was over, the volley released, the weapons emptied. The dead lay all around me. But I’d made it. And I thought that was a pretty good strategy – head down, play dead, stay alive. The next time the battle signal was given, I repeated my move, only to discover, to my horror, that several other people had noticed my move and were copying it. More of us, instead of standing and fighting, were cowering behind the rocks and earth, hoping the battle would pass us by. By the third time, the desire to hide had passed through the corps like a virus, and so many of us were seeking cover, instead of standing and responding to the battle cry, that we were simply and easily overrun, and the entire battalion was decimated. Where we crouched. As the enemy advanced, without any resistance whatsoever. And it was all on my shoulders.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

It was a scary, sweat-inducing dream. Every single time.

This week, my friend Kelly Hand, handed the dream back to me with a slightly new interpretation. Hand has evolved the precocious instincts that saw her rise up into the role of Canadian Olympic sailing coach while she was still in her 20s, through off-the-water life experience and certification in leadership coaching methodology, into a practice as a genius leadership coach with an almost-spooky ability to reveal your path to you.

Maybe it’s not actual danger you’re ducking, she suggested.  And suddenly, I found myself wondering if that crack-crack sound that had had me cowering, wassn’t bullets after all, but fireworks, or the sound of a party I’ve been missing out on.

Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

Seems so trivial, doesn’t it? Like discovering that song you’ve been singing, with all the air your diaphragm can squeeze forth, has actually been a completely mangled version of the true lyrics. It’s a long way, to the shop, if you want a sausage roll…

But the moment felt mythical.


In the true sense of the word.

Humility is a word I have misinterpreted my entire life.

I grew up believing it was important to be humble, but I had somehow interpreted that to mean keeping your head down, ducking the compliments, shrugging off the accolades and not getting too full of yourself.

Stay humble or be humbled, taken down a peg or two as punishment for being too big-headed, too high on yourself, too cocky and confident.

Then along comes Richard Wagamese, the late author of Indian Horse, writing his book of essays, One Story, One Song, like a friend saying, “here, take it. Hey, listen, I think that’s the sound of a celebration.”

“The old ones say that humility is the foundation of everything,” writes Wagamese. “Nothing can exist without it. Humility is the ability to see yourself as an essential part of something larger. It is the act of living without grandiosity. Humility, in the Ojibway world, means ‘like the earth.’ The planet is an epitome of a humble being, with everything allowed the same opportunity to grow, to become. Without the spirit of humility there can be no unity, only discord. Humility lets us work together to achieve equality. Humility teaches that there are no greater or lesser beings or things. There is only the whole. There is only the great, grand clamour of our voices, our spirits, raised together in song. “

It’s not about being full of yourself, but being fully yourself.

Humility is the ability to see yourself as an essential part of something larger.

Like the earth. Deeply essential. As you are. Part of a vital fellowship of beings, all working together.

What does it mean to show up? I’ve been exploring this idea lately…  as if it’s the crux of the call, as if it’s the first act in stepping into the work of our lives. It’s so much more nuanced than riding in like a saviour or donning the cape of the hero.

Being humble is the key. Showing up, humbly, means not ducking the compliments or acknowledgement or appreciation, nor shirking the responsibility to be part of the solutions. Own your talents. Whatever they are. And bring them to the table. As offering. In service. As an act of simple joy. And enjoy the fireworks.


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