The wisdom of humility

I guess now is the point where readers find out where my little piece of Heaven’s doorstep is located: east Alabama. Yes, I moved here from Portland. No, I can’t believe it either. It certainly isn’t paradise, but it is where I find myself for now.

I point this out because throughout a good portion of the Southeast snowfall recently caused a miniature meltdown. Yes, two inches of snow was enough to shut down government and business operations for two days, three days for some.

All this began Tuesday. Nevertheless, I had already made plans and decided I would brave the snow. After all, it was just a little snow accumulation. How bad could it really be?

After it took an hour to get into town, usually a 15-minute drive, I was beginning to get worried. I turned on the AM radio, something I rarely do, but I felt the need to get a weather report. Was it really worse than I had originally imagined?

The man whose voice was on the air did not sound particularly professional. He accepted a phone call from his wife. Such are the charms of small-town radio. This guy seemed to think the poor weather was pretty serious. I laughed it off. “What does this small-time guy know anyway? Not much about professional radio, that’s for sure.” 

Still, there was a gradual change in my attitude. I felt a need to justify my trip my telling myself I needed to fill up my gas tank (and truth be told, I was in need of gasoline) and decided perhaps I needed groceries (this was more of a stretch). Let’s be honest: on a snowy day in the South, you can most definitely wait until the next day to get gas.

Here’s the thing: I bought tickets to see Neko Case in Birmingham. First of all, I paid $30 for the tickets. For some people, that’s a drop in the bucket. For me, that is a serious investment and I’m being deadly serious. Secondly, I had already made plans—asked for work off, had a few places I wanted to visit in town, etc. Furthermore, I missed Neko Case the last time she toured and I’ve been wallowing in the residue of disappointment since that time. I did not want to miss her this time.

Now the truth is: I think it wasn’t a mistake to leave the house; that was a reasonable decision. However, after filling up my gas tank, I made a bad decision: I decided I was going to try to make it to Birmingham, radio guy working out of his basement be damned.

I turned on to I-20 West. Things seemed okay at first. ‘This is just typical Southerners overreacting to a little snow,’ I thought. 

Then, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley came on the air waves to announce a state of emergency. Not to go all Keanu Reeves on you, but: whoa. Now, I knew it was serious stuff. Several experts on Bentley’s staff talked of how the conditions would only worsen throughout the day.

Now I know a lot of people from colder environs laugh at Southerners; as you may have guessed, that was my initial reaction. However, I realized: it’s easy to laugh, but Southerners simply aren’t equipped for snowy and/or icy weather. It’s funny to witness people freaking out and shutting everything down over a few inches of snow, but most places in the South don’t have a need for plow trucks and salt trucks. There simply isn’t enough of a need for it.

Still, I traveled onward to Birmingham, although admittedly, I was seriously thinking of returning home at this point. How would I get home after the show, especially if the conditions were to worsen?

As it turned out, I hydroplaned on the interstate on ice. If you’ve ever hydroplaned before, you know it’s scary stuff. It has happened to me before, except: a) it wasn’t on a major interstate and b) it was in the rain, not in the snow. When it happens in rain, you feel a confidence that it will subside if you give it time. When it happens on ice, you feel completely helpless; you’re at the mercy of the ice. Needless to say, that was enough to finally knock a small nugget of sense into my knuckle head. I got off on the next exit and headed for home.

Unfortunately, I knew there were two hills to make it home. I lucked out and made it with relative ease up the first one, but I wasn’t so lucky on the final one. There I sat, foot on brake, emergency lights blinking at the top of a hill, stuck. I tried a number of different maneuvers, all of them unsuccessful. I got extremely frazzled. I was close enough to hit a car parked on the street. I kept pushing the gas pedal and only ended up going backwards (and I wasn’t flooding my engine either, thank you—I had already witnessed someone in such a futile attempt). Finally, with no one behind me, I put my car into reverse and let it slide a little down the hill and pulled into the nearest parking lot (of course, the details were a little more complicated but that is immaterial). Thankfully, I was close enough to walk the rest of the way home.

I think it was a valuable learning experience, despite being extremely stressful, for a number of reasons: 1. I would have had a significantly more enjoyable day had I just listened to Vic Chesnutt (“Stay Inside”). 2. While all indications early in the day were that the show was a go, early in the evening the show was formally postponed. All that trouble for what exactly? 3. Pray you don’t ever hydroplane in the snow. It is a terrifying experience. 4. Even though I have made critiques of hubris, I was demonstrating hubris. It can be a genuine challenge, but humility is the best model. It is good to be reminded of one’s ignorance. In the grand scheme of things, we all know so very little. I recently re-read some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, Eliot’s “East Coker.” It was a good reminder even before all this occurred, but especially after the fact: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility. Humility is endless.” 

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