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Shame Storm

Humbling experiences, and humility.

Today I want to write about humbling experiences…those experiences we all have that can give us a sense of humility…but don’t always, because we need to understand what true humility is.

I think humbling experiences can be an occasion for spiritual growth.

At least I hope so, because the last couple weeks have brought a number of humbling experiences for me personally.

I’ll share one silly, but recent experience: a softball game that I played in Thursday night.

I stunk.

I mean I really, really stunk.

I used to play softball.  I used to be on several men’s teams; competitive ones, even.  Heck, I used to play baseball, you know, hardball.  Grew up playing it, from Little League through Babe Ruth through high school. And I'd played lots of softball in all kinds of leagues.

So – even though it’d been years since I’d had cleats and a glove on – “I can pick this back up,” I thought.  I mean, “How hard can it be?”


Very hard.

They put me in left field.  The first ball hit to me, I did catch, but it was an easy pop fly I parked under and just had to wait on.

“Ya see, how hard can it be?” my thoughts went.

That’s about the time a hard ground ball is hit to my right…a fair ball…but just along the foul line, meaning I have to dash after it.

I get to it, but instead of scooping it up with my glove, I basically kick it.  Into the fence thirty feet away.  Meaning I have to chase after it again.

Except that the act of kicking-at-a-ball-while-attempting-to-bend-over throws me off balance, and I fall. By the time I scramble up and get to the ball to throw it in, a single is turned into a triple and I have a nice strawberry on my knee.  

An inning or two later, another ball is hit to me, this one over my head.

I back up, trotting backwards, keeping my eye on the ball.

“Back!” the other outfielders are warning me.

“Back!  Back-back-back, BACK!”

Well I AM backing up…but apparently more like an overloaded 18-wheeler semi trailer-truck than, say, Bryce Harper.

I do get to the ball – in just enough time to stab at it with my glove, re-launching it toward the warning track, which means I have to spin around to chase the ball down. 

Except that the act of spinning-around-while-stabbing-at-a-ball throws me off balance, and I fall.

Not just any fall, but a pitiful, sprawling, what my dad would call “ass-over-teakettle” fall.  By the time I scramble up, get to the fence and throw the ball in, what should have been an out is a stand-up triple.  

I know.  It’s only a softball game. And my errors weren’t the only ones committed.  And they didn’t cost the team the game: we ended up losing early by the slaughter (mercy) rule.

But I really did stink.

And what made things worse is how I got invited to be on this team: A couple of weeks ago, I was at lunch with a friend, and another friend walks by and starts chatting with us.

The conversation somehow turned to softball.  He’s a regular on this men’s team, sometimes they are short-handed--did I ever play, and if so, could I help out some time? 

I told him I’d be happy to.

But then for some reason felt compelled to add that “I was a really good third baseman, and left fielder.” 

Turns out “was” is the key word there.

You see, when I say “I used to play,” what I was thinking…where my brain was as I said that was…“you, know, three or four years ago.”

Uh, no.

As my wife Mary reminded me (when I was desperately looking for my cleats just before the game) it turns out the last time I played was eight years ago.

Okay, eleven years ago.  At least eleven years ago. (So no, she did not know how to respond to “Where in the heck are my cleats?”)

(I never did find my cleats, so I borrowed my son Will’s soccer cleats.)

(Note to self: do NOT attempt to play softball for the first time in, okay, over a decade while wearing undersized cleats from the wrong sport.)

But it wasn’t the cleats’ fault that I stunk.  Oh, how wonderful it’d be if it were that simple.

No, the reason I stunk is deeper.  More disturbing.

“I no longer have it.”

Damn, those words are hard to write.

Especially for a guy.

There’s a part of every guy that thinks we can go out there at 50 and do the things we did at 18. Or even the things we did at 35 or 40.

We can’t.  Or at least I can’t. At least not physically.  At least not on a softball field without practice or recent experience in someone else’s cleats on short notice.

So – back to the game – by the time the second game of the doubleheader starts, a lot of the regular guys have showed up...even though they politely offer to keep playing me, I see they have plenty of guys and I’m not needed any more, so I jump at the chance to get the heck out of there.

On the drive home from the game, I’m stewing in my own juices, kicking myself for a) having agreed to play b) having played so badly c) having run my mouth about being good.

That’s when it hits me: I’m having what the author Brene Brown calls a “shame storm.”

“Shame works like the zoom lens on a camera,” Brown writes.  “When we are feeling shame, the camera is zoomed in tight and all we see is our flawed selves, alone and struggling.”

In a shame storm, all you can think about is yourself.  How much you blew it, how you could’ve done things differently, how awful you are.

That’s what gets us to the distinction between “humbling experiences” and “humility.”

I’ve had a humbling experience, but I’m NOT filled with humility.

That’s because true humility – as C.S. Lewis points out – is NOT “thinking less of yourself,” but rather “thinking of yourself, less.”

Or as my dad used to say, “John, you wouldn’t worry so much about what other people thought of you, if you realized how seldom they do.”

What moves us from the shame storm of a humbling experience to true humility is – as Brown’s subtitle puts it – “letting go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embracing who you are.”

I’m not all the way there yet, but I’m moving in the right direction:

Letting go of thinking I’m still supposed to be an 18-year-old nimble jock and embracing the fact that a 50-year-old guy can get a mulligan for blowing a few plays if he was only trying to help a team out.

Remembering that after a round of beer, this game was ancient history to everyone concerned.

And remembering that what matters is if I can use what I am good at – reflecting on an experience and writing about it – as a way to help others make sense of the difference between “humbling experiences” and “true humility,” perhaps I can help save someone out there from their own shame storm.


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