Pat Conroy tells an interesting story about modesty. He was on a book tour, somewhere in New England, I believe. He said he loved to visit the local indy book stores, to browse, buy some books and to check if his titles were on the shelf. He was quite famous already, The Great Santini, Prince of Tides, South of Broad. You know, that Pat Conroy.
He steps up to the register and the store clerk exclaims, “Oh my God, you’re Pat Conroy!” and she immediately runs to the back of the store, grabs her favorite Conroy title off the shelf and asks him to autograph it just for her. He does. He thanks her and makes his exit.
A customer standing behind him follows him out of the store, stopping him on the street. “That was a terrible hoax you just played on that poor girl,” the bookish matron scolds him. “Pretending you’re some famous author!” He smiles and offers, “But I really am Pat Conroy,” to which she replied, “Don’t think you can pull that over on me!” She walked away in a huff.
The author shared this story with a sell-out crowd of Conroy converts at a book event I attended at the Ethical Society in St. Louis. I love that name, “Ethical Society,” almost an oxymoron. Anyway, this renowned and beloved Southern writer was making a point about modesty and how rare it is today. In a culture saturated by broadcasting braggarts who cloak their conceit under the ofttimes falsely modest label of “blessed” followed by whatever bullshit “to be” that follows, (take your pick) rich, famous, beautiful, awarded, anointed, selected, elected, praised or hazed, which is humbly, (but not really) Tweeted or Bragbooked to the world at the time of the occurrence, Conroy suggested that great people who do great things in a quiet way should be revered.
I agree. In fact, woe be if for me to cast the first stone at any of these insatiable gluttons for recognition and accolades. I went to a 12-Step meeting about this just last night! Only difference is, it’s NOT anonymous. In fact, I got three Tweets during the meeting, “so blessed to be at my Braggarts Anonymous meeting tonight and somebody recognized me!!!”
Constant self-promotion, instant-gratification-addiction, ‘tis the writer’s disease and I suspect many others are similarly afflicted. But just because I’m hooked on the adrenalin drip of comments on my blog and and “Oh hail!” the mighty likes on my Facebook page, it does not mean I don’t respect those who go about their goodness with quiet humility. They live their lives, do their work, make their offerings with nary a boast or brag. It’s not that they don’t want to be recognized, they’re just not self-promoters.
Take my little brother J.R. for example. J.R. Whatley was a self-proclaimed Spartacus. He’d been through some blows that would have taken down the fiercest of gladiators — blinded in one eye when he was 20 years old, losing an infant son a short time later, surviving cancer in his 40s. While he liked to claim that he was invincible and sometimes told big stories about the big things he’d conquered, mostly he went about his business, husband, father, brother, mechanical engineer with a plumber’s education, with aplomb and little fanfare.
It was only at his funeral in February that I was reminded of all the amazing things he’d concocted, constructed, remodeled, rigged or caught — he was quite the fisherman. It made me feel guilty that the pain surrounding his alcoholism had trumped all the good stuff. Our family witnessed how alcohol was killing him and it made us angry. And in that anger and sadness, somehow, all the loving, present and productive years, the decades of sobriety, all got tossed with the beer cans. It is easy to demonize a person for the biting pain they’re inflicting at the moment of impact. It is harder to discern that one tragic snapshot does not a lifetime make. The only thing my little brother ever wanted was a little credit for the brighter days.
Humility is, of course, a virtue. But ask anybody on the street and they’ll tell you, it feels good to get a little credit where credit is due. I mean, who wants to be standing in line for the soccer team trophies and have the coach skip over you? That’s cold, man. How many of us would have the gumption to raise our hand and say, “Hey! What about me?” Some would, some wouldn’t. I can’t say how Pat Conroy would react but I do know that when he was modestly accepting a compliment from an obviously ardent fan, he was excoriated for a crime of vanity he didn’t even commit! Given his Citadel training and Southern upbringing, I’m not sure Paddy Boy would be a hand raiser.
It was a glance at the maintenance man’s hands in the elevator this morning that reminded me of J.R. I’d been mulling over what to write about this week. Topics ranged from the pros and cons of full disclosure in on-line dating profiles to how my dog Louie got rejected by the dog park last weekend. But then J.R. stomped his foot and said, “Hey, what about me?” Okay, it’s your turn, bro. I humbly thank you for the inspiration. I humbly recognize and honor your quiet perseverance, your accomplishments, your mechanical genius, your unsurpassed sense of humor and your legacy. You mattered. How I regret that this credit is past due.
My advice to the rest of you?
CALL SOMEBODY WHO’S MADE A DIFFERENCE IN YOUR LIFE.
TELL THEM THEY MATTERED.
Call your teacher, a former boss, your coach, yo’ momma, your best friend from high school, your grandpa, piano teacher, babysitter, lawn guy, hair dresser, your long-lost cousin in Wichita, your aunt in Long Beach. Hells bells man, email Pat Conroy! Tell him The Great Santini was the best book you ever read and the movie was an equal match and he is a man among men for forgiving his daddy.
Call ‘em up! Send ‘em an email. Do it today! Tell ‘em in the humble way in which they conducted their lives, they mattered.