How to Learn Humility in Just Two Hours

28 May

The other night, for the first time, I showed up for men’s doubles night at some local tennis courts. There’s a hierarchy that determines the court on which you play. I was assigned to the court reserved for those with the lowest skill level, based on the fact that I’d never played there before and perhaps because the tennis pro in charge intuited how bad my backhand really is.

I was wandering around trying to locate Court #6 when a very tall, very old guy with exceptionally creaky knees stopped and pointed me in the right direction. As I thanked him, I couldn’t help thinking, “What the heck is that guy doing here? He can barely move.” But he was in fact there to play. And he was heading, quite slowly, toward Court #6.

When we got there, along with two other guys about my age, he introduced himself as Mac. Then he told us he’d been playing on the tennis club’s courts since 1965.

Math has never been my strong suit. But it didn’t take long to calculate that was five years before my parents had even met. No, wait, six years!

We warmed up by hitting some balls across the net to each other. I did my best to hit them right to him, so close that he wouldn’t have to take a step. I’m not always the most astute of men, but I definitely didn’t want to go down in history as the punk who, on his very first night on the courts, felled one of the club’s Founding Fathers with a deep lob.

The rules went like this. You take turns playing one set with each of the guys in your foursome. At the end of the night, you totaled up how many games you won, which could be as many as 18. And that number decided which court you were placed on the next time you came back.

It worked out that I played against Mac for the first set. I’d better win a bunch of games now, I thought, because when he’s my partner we’ll be lucky to win one. Just before we started playing, I heard him explain to his partner that he couldn’t really move vertically or laterally. So the other guy needed to cover the three quarters of the court where Mac wasn’t standing.

This whole thing oughta be over in about five minutes, thought I, who had not picked up a racket in seven months and has a forehand about as consistent as my kids’ behavior.

As it turned out, the first game was over in five minutes, and my partner and I were on the losing end. The second game went the same way. And so went the entire set, which we lost to Mac and his partner 6 – 3.

What Mac lacked in range he made up for in skill and cunning. He had a steady serve and clean strokes and almost never made a mistake. And his impeccable placement of the ball had me so off balance I literally hit the ground a couple times trying to chase his shots.

My only moment of glory came when I switched over to become Mac’s partner. We won our set easily. But it was a short-lived triumph. I had to play against him again in the next set. Final score: 6 – 0, advantage Mac.

When we tallied up our wins for the night, Mac had earned the maximum 18. I, of the limber knees and foolish pride, had a mere nine.

When I got home, my wife asked how it had gone. “It was a humbling two hours,” I said.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I just got my ass kicked by a guy twice my age who could barely walk in from the parking lot,” I explained.

The night had been painful for a couple reasons, beyond the rapid onset muscle soreness I’d acquired lunging fruitlessly for many of Mac’s shots. For one, I’ve just published a book in which I devote an entire chapter to the importance of humility. But the moment I’d laid eyes on Mac, I’d lost all sense of it. It never even crossed my mind that a guy pushing 80 might completely outfox me.

For another, Mac should have written that chapter. He’s the truly humble guy.

There wasn’t anyone else out there even close to his age. And who can blame them for staying home? Why come out for a night of tennis that will mostly remind you of all the things you can no longer do?

But unlike me, Mac knew precisely what he couldn’t do and accepted it. He not only made a point of letting the rest of us know in advance; he also apologized for it. That takes some humility. More than that, he also knew exactly what he could do and focused all his energy on that. That kind of self-knowledge – and the success it can breed – is also the product of humility. I’m hoping I’ll develop it someday, too. And as with my dreams of one day having a half-decent backhand, maybe I’m just humble enough now to know it will take a while.



4 Responses to “How to Learn Humility in Just Two Hours”

  1. Allison May 29, 2012 at 3:05 am #

    talk about arse kicking. o.O i won’t elaborate any more to spare you. ^^

    humility indeed…funny how things just completely turn around like that. i had a feeling, since you were focusing on mac, that he had something up his sleeve.
    pushing past 80 and winning the perfect 18? that’s how i want to be when i’m elderly.

    what a story to tell. thank you for sharing (gosh that sounds so formal…and i just ruined it. oh well.)

    • admin May 31, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

      Hi Allison — thanks for stopping by. Think I’ve learned my lesson for the next time I get on the courts. From now on, I’m assuming everyone is WAY better than me.

  2. Bea June 10, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    How delightful life can be when it gives us daily reminders to be humble. I live in a 55+ community and every person here over 90 is in great shape–a little slower in body but the minds are perfect. I’ve fallen in love just today–again. I found your blog!

    • admin June 10, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

      Bea — very glad you’ve joined the journey here at Messy Quest — and thanks for your kind words! Hope you’ll share your thoughts here regularly.

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