That morning, we were examiners at a postgraduate examination. I hardly knew any of my other co-examiners. It was my first encounter with all three of them. ‘Encounter’ is a word I use deliberately. For what followed was completely avoidable.
I should have anticipated this behaviour when I first met this man who was the other external examiner. He had warned the rest of us about being a ‘strict examiner’. But then I have come across several specimens of that species and wasn’t unduely perturbed.
The vivas started that morning. He started by telling the students that he would examine them thoroughly. We happened to be in a relatively new institution, which had not exposed its students to the most recent of advances. And to expect the students there to perform well in areas they had never seen, was rather unfair. The circus began. Asking tough questions is valid, but boasting about your competence after every question was completely unwarranted. Every hour, the internals would be warned of how he was going to fail all the students.
During the breaks, things turned worse. We were forced to hear long sagas about how efficient he was, and how his University couldn’t function without him. Of how he worked until midnight, while his better half waited at home. I was tired of his bragging. But then, there was the mandatory dinner with the examiners that evening. With a few drinks inside him, he continued to crow, now without a pause. He had a servile audience to lap up his stories. After all, the futures of their students was at stake. The stories turned more and more adventurous and unbelievable. His arrogance was nauseous. I had the misfortune of having to spend over ten hours with him. I simply wanted to run away to my room to escape his garrulous boasts. He didn’t leave that dinner before warning the internals that the result the next day would be disastrous.
In the silence of my room that night, angry and disgusted with how the day had gone, I sat and stared at the glitzy orange curtains in the guest house. And then it struck me.
Wasn’t this man simply a more severe version of me? This could have been me with a moustache and dressed in a coat, for all I knew. Is that why I was feeling so angry? I didn’t sleep a wink that night.
We all have different strengths, and we take pride in them. I like doing my work perfectly and I am assiduous in how I approach different tasks. The problem comes when we expect others to measure up to our standards. We begin by advising others on how to do things, and before we know it, this unsolicited advice turns into sermonizing and preaching. And becoming a boastful braggart is the final level. To be honest, until I noticed this man, I didn’t even realize when I had crossed the fine line called humility in my quest for perfection.
But nature has her way of teaching us lessons. There was a time when I was sought after for doing things well. I began to take on several tasks without acquiring the necessary ability to say no. I needed to slow down and see what was on my plate. As one of my mentors warned me, I suffered an early burn out. I could no longer keep deadlines. A lot of people were hurt by my tardiness. But in my quest for perfection, delays were inevitable. Where was my much-flaunted commitment? Wasn’t I simply becoming a version of something I detested? And it wasn’t a happy feeling at all.
And then came lesson number two. Pride always goes before a fall. Despite all my efforts, I slipped. I erred disastrously. My pride in being competent was completely shattered. I could not forgive myself. The cosmos had jumped in with another bitter lesson.
Everything comes with a finish date. I no longer have the energy to be as committed and competent like before. Ageing changed a few things. Priorities altered others. There will always be others better than me. And it is important that I treat the ones who don’t have my strengths with more respect. Because they have different strengths which I need to imbibe.
Sometimes, seeing another person is like putting a mirror to yourself.
(Featured painting: Jacob Peter Gowy (c 1615-1661), The Fall of Icarus (1635-7), oil on canvas, 195 x 180 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons. )