Humility is a tough lesson. As humans, we think we know what to do based upon the fairly arrogant assumption that our minds, our own reason, is all we need to figure things out and find the right answer. Ask any high school kid from where truth comes, and many will claim that it comes from inside themselves. In other words they think they invent, so to speak, their own truth. Many adults agree, including the famous poet Walt Whitman, who wrote, “Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book. Dismiss whatever insults your own soul.”
Such writing suggests that there is some source of truth within us, that deep within our hearts we know better than our teachers, preachers, and any book we have ever read. To say such things is to dismiss thousands of years of accumulated wisdom which has been passed down in writing, shared experiences, and endless discussions. When we say truth comes from within us, we are really saying that we already know everything we will ever need to know. When we take a step back it becomes clear how our claim to truth isn’t one of knowledge, it’s of our ego. And history has, time and time again, shown us just how foolish and dangerous it is when we let our egos run the show.
Here’s a simple story to illustrate: Brent purchased a brand new truck. Unfortunately, his snug garage could barely fit his beautiful vehicle. The garage door barely closed over the back bumper. The driver’s door couldn’t open all the way without banging into the chest freezer. The basement door opened just far enough to let a person through without hitting the front bumper. The fridge door could open up just enough to wiggle out a gallon of milk before it hit the front tire. The drivers-side door could open with barely enough room for Brent to get inside. The potential for dents and scratches would make any new-car owner shiver.
So, Brent decided to truck-proof his garage. He hung a tennis ball from the ceiling to bump the windshield at just the right place to stop as he pulled straight in to make sure he didn’t hit the front of his truck while still being able to close the door. The corner of the chest freezer was covered with cardboard and duct tape. By the time he was done, the cramped, tiny garage was considerably less of a danger to his truck’s paint job. It took an hour to set it up and, when done, the truck was parked straight and secure. He called his wife Jan out to the garage to see his work, proudly explaining his brilliant solution to the truck-and-garage dilemma. She said, “That’s nice, sweetheart,” and retired back into the house. Brent stayed behind for one more satisfied look before following her into the house.
A year went by, and Brent continued to park his truck straight in the garage without a single scratch. Yes, it was difficult to get in and out of it, to get the milk out of the fridge, and to get downstairs, but it was worth it. Then, one day, Jan mentioned that she needed to borrow the truck to run a few errands. A couple hours after she returned, Brent went out into the garage to get something from the freezer. What he saw stopped him cold - Jan had parked the truck crooked, at an angle, in the garage! After all his work! Bothered, Brent stalked back to the kitchen to confront Jan as to why she parked the truck crooked. She looked up from her work and said matter-of-factly, “because it’s easier to get out of.” He paused for a moment and then returned to the garage for a second look.
With the truck parked at an angle, the drivers-side door didn’t even come close to hitting the chest freezer. The basement door swung completely open, as did the fridge door. All Jan had done was crank the wheel to the right as she came to a stop to create the slight angle. Brent stared for a full minute until he muttered aloud: “Brent, you’re an idiot.” It was so simple. So easy. Park the truck crooked. Wow.
Then it hit him: there was a better way to park the truck. There was a better way to park the truck. He hurried back to Jan and breathlessly explained his realization. “See?” he cried out. “I thought there was only one way to park the truck and that was to park it straight in! It never occurred to me to park the truck crooked because I didn’t think anybody did!” Jan nodded slightly.
“But you parked it crooked! See?” Jan nodded again, but this time with more enthusiasm.
Brent concluded, “We think we know the right answers, we think we have something all figured out, we think we know how things are supposed to be, but we really don’t know much! There’s a better way!”
So what does parking a truck in a garage have to do with humility? Why should we care whether or not Brent can easily access the milk in his fridge? The first answer is because it reminds us how, whether we like to admit it or not, the right answers we claim to find within ourselves actually come from the world around us. Brent didn’t think that parking his truck straight was the right way to do it because his parents parked their cars straight, his friends parked their cars straight, and he had only ever seen cars parked straight in garages. Our environment and past experiences impact us more than we realize. When we talk about from where we get our truth, it’s never a question of whether we find it within ourselves or from some outside source. The real question is from which outside source influence our understanding of the truth. As servant leaders, we must remember and be humbled by this fact - that our answers are not our own.
The second reason we should care is that Brent’s story demonstrates the importance of acknowledging, and fixing, our own mistakes. There are hundreds of different ways to practice servant leadership, and there are plenty of different ways to be a servant leader, yet all servant leaders understand their own limitations and have the humility to ask for help. We can’t come up with the best answers on our own. There is a better way to park the truck and we can’t figure it out by ourselves. When Jan parked the truck at an angle, Brent was humble enough to realize that her solution was better than his and changed his actions accordingly. When we hear things that go against what we have always done, with what we think is the truth, we need to be able to open ourselves up to the possibility - to humble ourselves to the possibility - that there is a better way to park the truck
Kay Dodge was one of the leadership students Brent Grothe, her leadership advisor, challenged to pursue a life of humble service and has never been the same since. She is passionate about loving people, which is what she considers to be the purpose of life. One day she hopes to master her ego and love others and herself without reservation. She is beyond thankful for the opportunity to write about her passion with her former teacher and current friend.
Brent Grothe spends his days challenging high school kids to consider pursuing lives of deep meaning and purpose rather than ones of shallow happiness. He’s been presenting the suffering and joy of servant leadership for a long time and thinks he’s finally, in a real way, understanding it himself. On a never-ending quest to clearly articulate the slavery of ego versus the freedom of humility, he plans to stay in the classroom as a leadership teacher until someone decides to retire him. He’s been involved with activities and Mt. Adams High School Leadership Camp for 40+ years and he still can’t believe he actually gets to teach life for a living while at the same time being blessed with friendships with the likes of Kay Dodge.