Like an easy swing, a little humility goes a long way

Thomas Merton, the late Trappist monk and author of New Seeds of Contemplation,

Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, but I’m doin’ the best that I can.                                                         Mac Davis

If I wrote that saying thanks to the person serving you your morning coffee would make you a better golfer—or better at whatever you do—would you be more likely to try it?

A silver lining of the pandemic lockdown is that, as a society, we’ve had a collective reminder that being kind and connecting with one another does a lot of good.

It’s also re-affirmed that when I transcend my usual concerns for myself, and take action to support others, it feels good.

My usual pre-occupation is the state of me. That doesn’t make me a selfish jerk—although you’re entitled to your opinion. In fact, I can’t help it. According to awareness expert Judson Brewer, it’s because of the “default mode network” in my brain.

Due to the default mode, Brewer says we spend most of our time “ruminating and day-dreaming” about ourselves, “which correlates with unhappiness.” This same default mode is linked to anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and Alzheimer’s disease, says Brewer, a psychiatrist and medical director of the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic. 

All this self-analysis—“Can I pull this off,” “Am I good enough? etc.—is tedious and tiresome, like those miserable days when I continuously check my phone for a hoped-for email.

But when I get outside of myself—and use the “attentional” part of my brain, according to Brewer—and connect with others, I feel much better.

When I look the server at Starbucks in the eyes and ask her, “How’s your day going,” I am doing both of us a favour. I’m showing genuine concern for her, and I’m escaping my claustrophobic cocoon of self.

I have been thinking about this during the pandemic, and in reading New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton, the late Trappist monk and prolific author. After I read the passage below a few weeks ago, I felt like I had been whacked across the chest by a two-by-four.

“When humility delivers a man from attachment to his own works and his own reputation, he discovers that perfect joy is possible only when we have completely forgotten ourselves. And it is only when we pay no more attention to our own deeds and our reputation and our excellence that we are at last completely free.”*

Here’s I get to the promised connection to golf.

Think about when you’ve played your best golf. 

In those rarefied moments, there’s no thinking about what or how you’re doing. You’re just doing it. All golfers have tasted the hallowed zone from time to time—it’s like your swing just happens, everything feels easy and your mind is as tranquil as a lake at dawn.

Alas, when we become aware, for example, ‘Hey, I’ve got a good round going here,’ that’s when trouble can start. Rather than enjoying yourself, the course and your buddies, now you’re focusing on yourself. You may start to think, ‘Can I keep this going?’ ‘Don’t screw up.’

Now the round has become about you, more particularly, about how you identify with your score, the value you place on it, and what it may say about you. 

At this point, the swing that was once easy is now strained. The game becomes difficult. You’re so immersed in thought that you become disassociated from your body. Now, you’re careful, taking more time to get everything right, and your muscles tighten as a consequence.

And … your ‘good’ round inevitably turns into yet another ‘mediocre’ one. (It’s amazing to me the massive gulf between how I feel when I shoot 79 and 80. As my dad used to say, it goes from kind of exciting to kissing your sister.)

Perhaps this season, you might hum Mac Davis’s song around the course to remind yourself that as soon as you start investing some importance in your score, you’re actually robbing yourself of a good time, and the possibly of a satisfactory score. 

And, as Merton writes, there’s a wonderful sense of freedom and joy that comes to us when we put aside our concerns about ourselves, practice humility and pay attention to the people and world around us.

For golf, and I’d argue for just about everything, when we let go of our attachments to score and reputation, we tap into our essence which is brilliant, and capable beyond what our minds can conceive.

Interestingly, your golf scores will likely get better.

But the greatest satisfaction is less about what the score says about you. Rather, it’s more about savouring the experience of, well, whatever is truly important to you. And I’ll argue it’s something greater than score.

*I deleted Merton’s reference to God in the passage. I’m aware that as soon as there’s any ‘God-talk,’ a lot of people will tune out. I also believe the edited passage allows readers to determine what freedom means for them. I also respect there are readers who don’t share my spiritual beliefs. 

Here’s the second sentence in its entirety: “And it is only when we pay no more attention to our own deeds and our reputation and our excellence that we are at last completely free to serve God in perfection for his own sake alone.”

About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!