This season of thanks yields lesson of humility

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

T.H. Broyhill co-founded Broyhill Industries, a major furniture manufacturer headquartered near my North Carolina roots.

My grandfather worked for him during the struggling years of the company’s infancy. Mr. Tom, as he was affectionately called, was a fine man, sensitive to the needs of people and the community. My family admired him but often stood in awe of his wealth and reputation. That was our problem, not caused by him.

My favorite Mr. Tom story happened on a college campus after a trustee meeting. He was seen talking with a man whose clothes and general appearance indicated a modest background and means.

The men conversed briefly and then the stranger asked, “What do you do for a living?”

Mr. Tom sputtered a bit, shifted his weight, and said, “My family makes a little furniture.”

“I fool with furniture some,” the stranger replied. “I made two split-cane rocking chairs last month. Sell ’em to tourists coming through.”

They continued talking about furniture. But not one time did Mr. Tom ever indicate who he was or what kind of furniture enterprise he had. The stranger never knew he stood in the presence of one of the world’s foremost furniture manufacturers at that time.

When someone asks for a definition of humility, I think of Mr. Tom. He did not make the other fellow feel badly or inferior by reciting statistics about his company’s success. Nor did he put the less-fortunate person at a personal or professional disadvantage. He didn’t make him feel stupid or less important.

In fact, Mr. Tom asked for details about making split-cane rockers.

“Just how,” he asked the stranger, “do you go about making that wood bend to suit you?”

The man told him–just one furniture maker talking to another.

Mr. Tom listened intently.

Humility is being open to what another person can teach you, and respecting that potential in every person. Even with his great success, Mr. Tom remained open for input. He was teachable.

The season of Thanksgiving invites humility to dine with us at our table. When we are thankful, life becomes less about what we have done and more about what we have been given. We become open to the gifts that others may have to teach us.

Even in the worst of circumstances, we can find something to be thankful for. And when we do, a perspective descends on our thinking that recalibrates what matters in our lives. We may not have what we want, but it may be enough.

And for those holiday tables lacking the warmth and laughter of a lost loved one, know that even the toughest losses dim by the light of gratitude. We can push grief and self-interests to the side of our minds and focus on what we still have. With effort, our losses become part of a larger memory that includes a gratitude for time spent together, even if cut short.

Gratitude breeds humility. Humility keeps us open to the lessons ahead and receptive to new people, new ideas and new experiences.