Published in the New Hampshire Concord Monitor, May 21, 2017
Greatness Manifests Humility May 15, 2017
A recent White House dinner included several journalists as invited guests. They reported that guests were served water while President Trump received a diet coke. Guests were served chicken as the main course. President Trump’s chicken came with a side of extra gravy. And for dessert the guests were served one scoop of ice cream while Trump received two scoops, whipped cream, and a cherry.
This White House meal with the President is in sharp contrast with a meal my colleagues and I experienced in a village of impoverished indigenous Mayans in Chiapas, Mexico. The hosts insisted that we sit in places of honor at their table. They then served us the only chicken available in the village while they were content to eat rice and beans.
These contrasting meal experiences illustrate a growing tension in our country between attitudes of arrogance and expressions of humility. It seems there is a growing affinity for people manifesting over-large egos. Led by our President and some national and state elected officials, we are becoming a nation that values bluster and consolidation of coercive power over discernment and collaboration. Associating with “winners” has become more important than attending to refugees, the impoverished, and the sick. There is a burgeoning disrespect toward differing cultures, religions, and lifestyles. Effective leaders are expected to be able to force their will on others – particularly at the beckoned call of wealthy Special Interests. Internationally, The United States is expected to assert absolute dominance over the nations of the world: the strongest military, the most prosperous economy, a superior culture, and the most successful political system.
It is essential that such popular bluster be mitigated by a sense of humility. In English, the word “humility” comes from the Latin root word, “ground.” To have humility is to be grounded in a way that does not need to prove self-worth or to claim superiority over others.
The primacy of humility is advocated in many of the major religions. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks states, “In Judaism humility is an appreciation of oneself, one’s talents, skills, and virtues. It is not meekness or self-deprecating thought, but the effacing of oneself to something higher. Humility is not to think lowly of ones self, but to appreciate the self one has received. In recognition of the mysteries and complexities of life, one becomes humbled to the awesomeness one is and what one can achieve.”
In Christianity, Jesus says, “When you are invited… to a banquet… sit down at the lowest place…” From there, you may be honored with an invitation to move up higher. “For all,” he said, “who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” C. S. Lewis states that, in Christian moral teaching, the opposite of pride is humility. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”
In Islam it is said, The Prophet did not behave towards others as if he was better than they were, nor did he spurn manual work. One of his companions reported that Prophet Muhammad worked happily with servants or workers. Other companions related that the Prophet tidied his house, tied camels, fed animals, ate meals with his servants, and helped them in kneading dough and bringing provisions from the market. It was also reported that he used to visit the sick, attend funerals, ride on a donkey, slow down his pace for the sake of the weak and accept invitations from the poor.
Lao-Tzu said, “humility … keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men (sic).”
People of privilege, including our President and elected leaders, have advantages over the general public that demand a serious dose of humility. Imagine these privileged people leading our nation toward a growing awareness that “Fullness of knowledge always and necessarily means some understanding of the depths of our ignorance, and that is always conducive to humility ” (Robert A. Millikan). Imagine people expecting a semblance of humility among members of Congress, in the office of President, and in our relationships with other nations. Imagine humility influencing our relationships with one another. Imagine what we could learn from one another, the respect that could be generated, and the problems that could be solved. Imagine electing people who are strong not by being proud and arrogant but by being humble and respectful. Imagine the impact on international leaders at a White House dinner where the host took only one scoop of ice cream so that the guests could each have two!
Humility is an amazing tool to complement the economic, military, and political strength of our country. A humble America could advance trustworthy creative relationships between our country and other nations in our troubled world.
Advantaged and influential people exercising humility could break down the economic, racial, ethnic, and gender identity barriers among us. Modeling humility could enhance the effectiveness of our democratic system. Bluster, arrogance and coercion have been tried. It’s time to give humility a chance.