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Lessons from the Most ‘Stupid’ Man in Tuscany: Letting Go of Ego and Embracing Vulnerability

“The most stupid man in the world.” That’s me. A title I was officially given last month.

Lessons from the Most 'Stupid' Man in Tuscany: Embracing Vulnerability and Letting Go of Ego

September 23 will always be remembered as a day of learning the true meaning of transcending the ego.

We were finally ticking off one of our big bucket list items: a trip to Italy. And in particular, a trip to Tuscany. Tuscany lived up to our expectations and allowed for a needed slowdown after the hustle of Venice. I loved the openness, the rolling hills, the beauty of the olive and grape vineyards, and the feeling of tranquility and peace that emerged simply walking within these enviable landscapes. 

We made our home in a beautiful small town called Figline Valdarno and soon learnt something of interest. We were in Sting land. Sting, the renowned musician, resides here a couple of months a year. We walked past his mansion and dined at his open-air restaurant on one of the evenings of our stay. It was simply amazing. 

On this evening, we were joined by three local Italians. The owner of the guest house where we were staying accompanied us along with two of her friends. It made for great fellowship as we felt part of the community and it created the magic of feeling like we were experiencing localness. 

One of the owners’ friends was Walter, this boisterous 82-year-old Italian, full of life and expression. And within this comes the topic of this blog. About an hour into our meal, I made a comment towards the conversation, which Walter responded with much energy and apparent seriousness, ‘you must be the most stupidest person in the world that I have ever met.’ 

We (a party of four) burst out laughing, unsure of how to interpret this unexpected comment from a new friend we had spent one hour with. We made some jokes and on went the evening. But it was an interesting and unexplained comment. When was the last time I was called the most stupid person in the world? I think my narcistic Biology teacher in high school said something similar, but that was school when teachers were obviously allowed to say such things. But to hear it in Tuscany – that caught me by surprise. 

Lessons from the Most 'Stupid' Man in Tuscany: Embracing Vulnerability and Letting Go of Ego

What do you do when your identity feels attacked?

Have you ever out of the blue received a slap in the face? What do and don’t you do? 

This incident afforded me the opportunity to engage something that I’ve been learning and practicing: agreement is a disarming force. Most of us spend our lives trying to establish self-esteem and to create an identity that we hope people will look up to and admire. This causes us to value looking smart, appearing successful, to not be average and be differentiated from the majority. 

Have you ever noticed that being considered average is not a compliment? This path is well walked; and I walk it. It’s not all bad. And yet it does have ramifications. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, engages a topic called a ‘culture of honour.’ He explains that a culture of honour is one where your reputation is central to who you are and to making a living. If my reputation is so important to me, how do I respond when people are not fragile with my ego state? If I don’t come right in putting my ego aside, I probably get ‘pissed’ off and, based on personality, intensity and sensitivities, it causes bad behaviour. 

But what happens if you just choose to agree with it? 

Agreement Is A Disarming Force, Indeed.

I have just finished reading Bono’s book, Surrender. For the non music lovers or younger audience, Bono is the lead singer of the group U2, and he’s one of the most successful musicians of all time. In his book, Bono is quite open about his faith. He calls himself ‘a follower of Jesus.’ But as you know, pinning any label to your chest opens you up to judgement and criticism. Bono says the way he gets around this is to own up and assume the label of the hypocrite. If anyone challenges him about how he walks his faith, he agrees. He beautifully says in the book, ‘I am a follower of Christ who can’t keep up.’ I like that. Living into labels is tiring. Especially when so many have a different version of what that label should be. Hold the label loosely and keep your identity small. 

Let’s make this even more compelling or potentially provocative. Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr shares these words… 

“I am not who you think I am. Nor am I who you need me to be. I must be nothing in order to be open to all of reality and new reality. Being nothing has a glorious tradition. When we are nothing, we are in a fine position to receive everything from God.” 

We are deep. And these words are potentially contentious and easily misunderstood. And yet, within them I have found freedom. When I bolster my identity, I find myself having to prove to myself and others my ‘stripes.’ If intelligence brings me self-worth, then I need to prove my intelligence by hustling and demonstrating how unintelligent everyone else is. If someone insults my intelligence, then I am most likely to be defensive. But what if I disarm this by making intelligence obsolete –  a topic that’s not interesting or of value? Does that put me in a place of freedom, or in Rohr’s words, in a place to receive everything?

Let’s go to a recent Seth Godin blog. Consider these words. 

“The time we spend fretting over what just happened is time we’re not spending on addressing the problem itself. When your client or your boss turns down a great idea, it’s tempting to focus on the idea and how right you were. It might make more sense to try to find empathy for the fear and status issues that the client has instead. Because those issues probably got in the way of them ever seeing what you had to say.“Okay, that happened.” Now what?”

Allow Feedback to Take its Rightful Place In Your Life

Imagine I took Walter’s words to heart and spent the rest of the evening trying to prove to him that he is wrong and rude and that in actual fact I am very clever. Suddenly, beautiful Tuscany and the newness of culture available for experience, here, right now, would fade, and it would become all about me. What a waste. Godin challenges us to view progression as being found in ‘being present without judgment to the way things are, seeking new paths forward.’ When we do this, it becomes easier to suspend judgment and move towards letting go of ego. 

Now let’s slow down and be a little bit more cautious. This blog is not about ignoring feedback. Feedback is one of the most valuable gifts another can give us and needs to be considered from a place of sobriety. Especially if there is a pattern to the feedback. Feedback is always best digested from a place of ‘I have nothing to prove.’ Which is achieved best by releasing the ego.

This enables a changed stance to how does this feedback improve me. I like that. Can I move away from the need to prove my worth and towards the notion ‘how does this improve me?’ When feedback is put in this place, it works. 

Our next night in Tuscany was spent in an Italian kitchen making (amongst other things) our own lasagne from scratch. It was an amazing evening of great company, wine, dancing, and friendship. Mandy got our two Italian chefs to dance to Mafikizola. We have it all on video. But wait….are you ready for it – who was our head chef? Walter. 

We dined and connected and towards the end of the evening Walter approached me and gave me a hug as if I was his prodigal son. His comment from the previous night was still somewhat a mystery, still unexplained. And yet if I was his most stupid person in the world, it was clear to see this had no impact towards his fondness of me. We had an unforgettable, truly wholesome, deeply connecting experience.   

Lessons from the Most 'Stupid' Man in Tuscany: Embracing Vulnerability and Letting Go of Ego

Be Less Offensive. And Take Less Offense.

A final question I ponder is, “was this a message lost in translation?” I don’t know. Walter, whilst not fluent in English, certainly made his way around the language with reasonable proficiency. After all, he taught us how to make lasagne. But I think this brings home the point even more.

 Misunderstanding is all around us. And when I become defensive to comments people make, the spiral goes downward, and getting ‘lost in translation’ now becomes deep and divisive. When I am unattached, there is no poison. Now we can move on, or move the misunderstanding to a place of understanding. We live in a world where we need to teach people to both not offend and to be less susceptible to taking offense. Both are important. 

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