Building Your Spiritual Home

To Hell with Dignity

At fifty two, I took up the tuba. I had played trumpet as a child, so the finger placements were not new. I had never particularly liked the trumpet but had always loved the deep rich tones of the tuba. And sure enough, I found it very exciting to play. Soon I had mastered “Happy Birthday” which I inflicted on my extended family on all occasions. I wasn’t very good, but no one seemed to mind. When a dear and quirky friend, William, from Vermont died, at his wife’s request, I played at his funeral. He and I had struggled with some of his home made instruments, and I knew that competence was not one of his requirements. By then I played a beat up sousaphone I’d found at a yard sale. I learned “So long, it’s been good to know you”, and my wife was good enough to lead us in singing along. William’s wife, and I’m sure his spirit, enjoyed the resulting din. And people laughed. I was delighted with the result.

My musical adventure has continued. I played at both my daughters weddings- “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and “Carolina on my Mind” - and at several friends weddings-including “Pachabel’s Canon”, and a few graduation celebrations- “Pomp and Circumstance”. Occasionally at church services. I have even auctioned myself off at the church auction. I would say I have had a very successful career in music. The problem is that I have never gotten past my early level of incompetence, and am only loved for how awfully I play and how earnestly I try. Audiences roar, and even ask for encores.

I think dignity is the enemy of freedom. Saving “face” limits our capacity to have fun, to be real and to be at home in our flawed selves. From my tuba I have come to see that playing well is not necessary in order to provide pleasure to others. Making a spectacle of myself is quite okay as long as it makes people happy and doesn’t offend anyone. Whether I “look good” or not doesn’t seem to matter. Playing tuba badly has been good for me.

Another example of not trying to put on a good face occurred when I was one of three family therapists invited to interview a couple for a Harvard Medical School conference on couples therapy. I was both honored and nervous at the opportunity. All three of us were videotaped interviewing the same “couple”, role played by an actor and actress. After the interviews we had time to review the tapes and plan our presentations. When I reviewed mine, I became aware that parts of the interview were badly flawed because of my tendency to side with a beleaguered husband against his hostile, aggressive wife. I wouldn’t give her enough space, and I protected him. I failed to notice or deal with his provocative passivity. I made my presentation about these mistakes, showing each one and then discussing what in my own history predisposed me to make these errors. The other two therapists presented their extremely skillful interviews, each one a work of art.

My behavior was not typical for Harvard presenters. I got a big ovation for my presentation and so many grateful comments afterward from therapists who loved seeing an “expert” make the kind of mistakes we all make. I felt as triumphant after this conference as I had felt nervous before it.

Not having to look good gives me freedom to try new things. When someone has to do a role play and be interviewed in public, or to try anything new, I generally volunteer. Most of my friends worry about looking stupid. Playing the tuba has moved me past that concern. I have little trouble talking about or showing my faults. I am unusually open about who I am, because I don’t have to hold myself up to any particular standard. Good is fine, okay is fine, lousy is fine. My wife has a framed statement, “Don’t criticize me for my faults. It’s what makes me human”. I do think that leading with my worst foot is a good way to put myself and my friend at ease.


1) How important is “looking good” to you?
2) What price do you pay for “looking good”?
3) Do you have ways of letting down your guard?
4) Are there things you’d like to do if dignity weren’t an issue?
What?

 

CHAPTERS

GET A LIFE
THE JOY OF A DEPRESSED MOTHER
OPENING MANY DOORS
GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH ANGER
THE PATH OF MEDITATION
GIVING UP CONTROL
MARRIAGE AS A CHANGE AGENT
STRUCTURES THAT SUPPORT LIFE
VERMONT AND NATURE
TO HELL WITH DIGNITY
COMPANIONS ON THE ROAD
DOUBLE VISION
WHAT SHAPES LIFE
DISMANTLING SELF
TOLERATING GOD’S LOVE
MAKING FRIENDS WITH GOD

 

 

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