*Warning: Lengthy and self-indulgent blathering!*
On Sunday, I had what might have been, for a better person, a humbling experience. For me, it was merely humiliating.
I was playing a violin solo for the special musical number during Sacrament Meeting. This in itself is a little embarrassing for me–I was a decent violinist a long time ago, but haven’t taken lessons or practiced seriously in many years, so I’m really not very good anymore, but there’s nobody better in my ward, and I’ve thought it important to offer my talents, such as they are, even though a bushel feels to me like a better place for them–ad Dei majorem gloriam and all that.
So, anyway, about 4 notes into “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” the wooden peg holding my d-string, shrunk by cold dry weather, came unstuck from its hole and spun around 3 or 4 times, so that the D-string wouldn’t sound at all (well, it might have sounded a little, but mostly like an ailing cow about an octave and a half below it’s proper place.) Rather than stop and fix it, I had the idiotic hubris to just transpose the rest of the verse up an octave and play it on the two upper strings, which were working fine. This worked well for the first verse, but then for the second verse, I was to play harmony, based on the tenor and bass parts, while the piano took the melody. I hadn’t bothered to write out this part, because under normal circumstances, I can transpose from bass clef to treble while I play. Without the d-string, though, I needed to more significantly re-write as I played, and I just couldn’t do it. The result was a total meltdown–I was just floundering all over the place, trying to play in 7th position on the G-string, hideously out of tune, doing nothing related either to melody or harmony with the piano. I recovered (sort of), finished the rest of the piece up an octave again and managed to put my violin away and make it to the ladies room before I started to cry. It might not have been so bad if I could have just slunk off to lick my wounds during Primary time and then come back to face people next week when everyone would have forgotten about it, but instead, I had to get back up on the stand and lead the (lengthy, perky, requiring much smiling) closing hymn 10 minutes later. Ugh.
This experience and, especially, my disappointingly self-involved response leaves me wondering about the nature of humility. For many years, my working definition has been from C.S. Lewis’ _Screwtape Letters_: “[God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. …He wants each man to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.”
While I still think this passage is lovely rhetorically, I’m not at all sure anymore that it works. Aside from the impossibility of knowing which cathedral is “the best,” I’m not sure that a designer as disinterested in his own excellence as the one Lewis describes would be capable of excellence in some objective sense. That is, our ambition to create things that are “virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy” seems inextricably linked with something like pride. I had thought I had gotten over this with my violin playing, that I wasn’t worried anymore about how good I was, and that I was able to just concentrate on giving a little gift of music to other people. As I learned on Sunday, I’m not even close to that point. So maybe I’m just not progressing as fast as I’d hoped, or maybe I’m bumping into a conceptual problem. (Obviously I’d prefer the latter explanation–please keep that in mind as you comment :))
So, is it possible to be properly ambitious, striving (“anxiously engaged”) and humble? What is the proper relation between excellence and humility?