Lower than the Dust

April 17, 2006

Jane Jimenez

Jane Jimenez

She often spent her days laying on the floor.  And because it was a home for the mentally disturbed, they let her.

Life at ground level looks different, a world of ankles of infinite varieties, delicate and sexy, sturdy and stout.  White shoes, all the same by institutional standards, are all different when one spends enough time watching them pass at eye level, down on the floor.

Size five and a half passes, clean white laces tied into perky even bows, and without even looking up to her face, I can know it’s my favorite nurse.  Size twelve, white turned tan, flecked with black and brown streaks, and I know it’s the custodian who cannot help but splash brown water against his shoes as he mops and cleans each day.

Life retains its magic and complexity, even when viewed from the floor.  Table legs, metal and wood, with caps at the base to protect the shine of institutional wax.  All legs have caps, but not all are the same.  Table legs setting on metal caps or housed in plastic shoes.  Chair legs with felt pads that slide when you push out from the table.  Some caps roll, wheels, rubber and quiet, one inch wheels that rotate as the cart is turned or five inch wheels fixed by a bracket to always go straight.

None of this matters, unless you live on the floor at ground level.  But not many of us try it.   Living there day after day for years simply because you want to live there is enough to classify you as mentally disturbed.  You are put away, assigned a room, given a diagnosis and proscribed a treatment.

This is the world where Morrie Schwartz once found himself, one of a staff of professionals assigned to help people like the woman living on the floor.  Because this was an institution where people were expected to be mentally disturbed, their daily routine had expanded to include walking around the woman down below.

But because this was also an institution dedicated to helping, the professionals persisted in trying to reach her.  People with black leather shoes continued to coax the woman off the floor, and when this failed, they pulled chairs close enough to her to talk.  Using the professional insights of college PhDs, they did their best to reach this woman down under.  But whatever the progress, it never was enough to bring her up from the floor into a chair next to them.

Morrie Schwartz, in this world for a short time, studied the situation with interest.  It appeared that every PhD solution had been tried.  But Morrie had a wisdom not handed out with diplomas.

One day, breaking the barrier between the world up above and the world down below, Morrie approached the woman laying on the floor.  He bent, he lowered, and finally he laid himself down on the floor, meeting the woman there in her own world.

It is a touching moment in Tuesdays with Morrie…Morrie laying on the floor of the asylum in order to speak with a crazy person.  Sacrificing his professional stature, laying on the floor and accepting her world, it is enough to help us understand the heart of a human being who has found it difficult to deal with the world up there.  Laying on the floor is the only way to tell a human heart I understand how you feel.  It is the only way to create a door into the upper world for the woman to enter.

Humility allows us to look into the eyes of another human being as equals.  It gives away a part of our ego to another, raising us both together to a level we could never have achieved alone.

It is no surprise that as Morrie took time to enter her world, the woman on the floor found reason to enter his.  Over time, gaining stature and confidence from the man who had the confidence to give away his own, she rose from the floor, choosing chairs more often than not, having finally found a reason to make life “up there” matter.

It is no surprise, then, to find humility at the center of eternal wisdom for living a perfect life.

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.  [Prov 11:2 NIV]

It is the foundation on which the Golden Rule rests, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Without humility, this is impossible.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.  [James 3:13 NIV]

As we seek ways to mend hearts and restore love, our solutions will not come from higher institutions.  Nor will advanced research perfect our techniques for creating love.  Love grows from the ground up, only when we are willing to set the seeds for love by setting ourselves lower than dust.


I believe that the first test of a truly great man is his humility. I don’t mean by humility, doubt of his power. But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them. And they see something divine in every other man and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.  John Ruskin (1819-1900)


New International Version (NIV), Copyright (c) 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

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