On humbleness

[POI: embarking on another father-daughter Costco run; a coffee catch-up with my unofficially-adoptive mother, Sue.]

I was terrified of Sue when I first met her. She has the gaze of Mulan‘s Shan Yu (minus, you know, the falcon sidekick and bloodlust) and a résumé to rival that of Condaleezza Rice. Years of negotiating with the world’s most intimidating, and therefore often stubborn, climate lawyers have lent her a particularly impenetrable aura, like the shell of an ostrich egg. She has an uncanny ability to perfect anything; competition is irrelevant to her because she is the competition, the one everyone loves (wishing they were her) and hates (knowing they could never be her) with equal ferocity. Her sense of humor is as wry as it is biting. Her first words to my parents were, “can we trade kids?”

Like her sons, Sue cannot go a day without music, but unlike anything else she does, Sue’s approach to music is utterly selfish: she plays, listens, and studies purely for herself, because she loves it that much. This is a woman who will not miss a syllable speaking to thousands at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, yet still shrinks with anxiety while playing Mendelssohn, because she is that afraid to disrespect the music. A woman who is invited to teach in the most prestigious universities, but whose hawk-like eyes still grow murky when doubting whether she’s capable of leading next week’s Columbia seminar.

I suppose that’s partly from where her extraordinary humility arises–the crushing reminder that, no matter how good she gets at writing provisos, staring down prime ministers, or shifting in Sarasate, she isn’t as good as she could be. In that way, she is a spitting image of my father. As he and I, once again, found ourselves driving to Costco for fro-yo, we landed back on the topic of his first years in America: lonely, barren, uncertain. Having just clinked affogato glasses with Sue an hour before, I couldn’t shake how closely her effortless modesty aligned with my father’s. Beside me sat a man who renounced everything he knew for college at 15, was chosen at 19 by the World Health Organization for a then-spectacular $3,000 (¥300,000) scholarship to study in America, and lived in Queens on three baozi (包子) a day.

He recounted this with the same quiet plainness Sue had, when remarking on her recent stint in Sciences Po and starting another at Yale. Their tone was almost blasé, without a hint of pride, except how they felt was anything but. It was like even they had to admit, after all these years of being their own worst critic, that they deserved every ounce of their success.

What is it about a person’s greatness that procures this kind of humility? How high can one reach, and how much pain must one feel, until one can throw oneself so thoroughly at something, the way my father does at oncology and Sue does at, well, most everything? I’m not sure how many times I would have to fail until I can talk about getting published in Science, or sitting a few chairs down from former President Obama, as casually as I can about the weather. I’ll have to ask my dad and Sue for an estimate.

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