photo: Tony Alter on flickr

Have you ever underestimated someone?

Perhaps you decided they weren’t smart enough. Or cool enough. Or nice enough. Or spiritual enough.

I don’t know about you, but I find that my snap judgments of people are usually wrong. I mean, first of all, it’s a judgment. That’s a problem right there.

Secondly, I’m taking a small amount of information about somebody and blowing it up into a blanket assessment. For no reason other than that my mind likes boxes and categories.

And judgments.

photo: Seattle Municipal Archives on flickr

Several years ago, I joined Toastmasters. I wanted to get more comfortable with public speaking, and everyone told me Toastmasters was the way to go.

They were right. The year I spent in Toastmasters was a major step in becoming more confident and relaxed in front of an audience. Plus the people I met there were friendly and supportive.

At least, most of the people.

In my particular Toastmasters group, there was a member named Russ Nelson.

Russ Nelson was 93 years old. He had a hard time hearing, so he wasn’t always able to participate in the group. Sometimes his hearing aid was on the fritz, so he would have to pass when asked to speak.

When he did speak, it was almost always about politics. Past politics. Old-school stuff like Roosevelt and Hoover. Of course, to him it wasn’t old school, as he was there when it was happening. But still.

Let’s just say I didn’t find it particularly interesting or absorbing.

photo: BiblioArchives on flickr

As far as my interactions with Mr. Nelson, they were minimal. While I found him to be a cordial gentlemen, we never had any particularly meaningful encounters. Among things, I think he didn’t know what to make of my name. My guess is there weren’t a lot of people named “Z” in his neighborhood when he was growing up.

Over time, I came to see Russ Nelson as a sort of mascot. Someone who was always there. Someone I put in a box. In this case, the “old, short, and hard-of-hearing” box.

And then the day came. The day the box burst open.

photo: Danie Ware on flickr

In Toastmasters, one of the items on the agenda is an activity called Table Topics. In Table Topics, members are invited to speak for one to two minutes on a given topic. The purpose of Table Topics is to speak extemporaneously – that is, without preparation of any kind.

On this particular day, Russ Nelson was one of the members invited to speak. I don’t remember the topic, but I do remember he didn’t speak solely about politics that day.

He spoke about perfection.

In a statement I’ll never forget, Russ Nelson said, “I am human, and thus incapable of perfection.” He went on to talk about the futility of trying to be perfect at everything, and the importance of understanding our limitations.

There he was, a 93-year-old man, stating what I heard before countless times. But there was something different about this time. To see someone who had lived a full life, standing before me and embracing the awareness of human limitations?

photo: Thomas Leuthard on flickr

Let’s just say, it had an impact.

Now, of course, we’re all perfect just as we are. That’s one of the messages of the spiritual path.

But we’re still human beings on the spiritual path. Human beings who make mistakes, who mess up from time to time. Human beings who do things we wish we hadn’t done and say things we wish we hadn’t said.

Something about Russ Nelson’s articulation of this fact allowed me to relax.

It allowed me to be a little gentler with myself. It allowed me to embrace his wisdom and claim it as my own.

photo: Bharat Mudgal on flickr

I left Toastmasters after a year, and while I truly value my experience there, I don’t remember much of what was said in the meetings. In fact, I only remember one thing.

One perfect thing.

While writing this post, I reached out to the current president of Toastmasters to find out how Russ Nelson is doing . Turns out he now has aphasia, a brain disorder that prevents him from understanding words. He’s currently living near San Francisco with his son. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to reach him or get a photo.

But I’ll never forget him.

I find it interesting that the one person in the group I dismissed as having nothing to teach me is the one person whose words I remember.

How perfect is that?!

It reminds me that one of my human imperfections is judgment. It reminds me that I know a lot less than I think I do.

Luckily, I’m still teachable. And I’m grateful to Mr. Russ Nelson for being one of my teachers.

photo: Shayan Sanyal on flickr

What has life taught you about perfection and imperfection? Who have been your teachers?

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