Sunday, September 21, 2008


Society’s Major Missing Virtue

“The late Lord Longford once burst into a London bookshop to scold the staff for not featuring his latest book more prominently in the store window. The book’s title? Humility.”
Humility is a core virtue of society that seems, sadly, lacking in today’s ambitious lifestyles. Humility is a vital trait to develop, and yet many look down on humility as a demonstration of weakness, as a lack of courage. Pride and ambition are glorified and admired, and success is coveted. Even according to Webster, to be “humbled” is to be “lower(ed) in condition or rank”, and humility itself is described as “having or showing a consciousness of one’s shortcomings."
Humility, however, is not a weakness. It is not a shortcoming. Humility is an asset, and the mark of a good person. Though tragically skipped over in society, humility is the foundation of good character. As Sir Thomas More, the British author and philosopher, eloquently stated:
“Humility, that low, sweet root,
From which all heavenly virtues shoot.”
The problem of pride is one that has been dealt with since the dawn of time. Ancient Greek mythological heroes like Odysseus and Achilles battled their “hubris,” that excessive, arrogant pride that often leads to the downfall of the hero. Examples of this pride, forever humility’s arch-nemesis, abound in both old literature and new celebrity.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the title character is consumed with thoughts of taking the kingdom of Scotland for himself from the aging King Duncan. Prodded on by both his nagging wife and his feelings of pride and inferiority, Macbeth kills the king. From that point on, his life is a tragic downward spiral, with more evil deeds generating from the original one. If Macbeth had simply bided his time and been content with his own stewardship, he would have enjoyed a happy, long life, though possibly a life without such high attainments in power. A lack of needed humility caused the downfall of Macbeth, and several others of Shakespeare’s tragic characters, like Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.
In a more modern anecdote, a “British newspaper once sent a questionnaire to several of the nation’s preeminent writers – including Jeanette Winterson (a famous writer during this time period). Among the questions was: “Whom do you consider to be the greatest living English prose stylist?” Winterson’s answer? Jeanette Winterson.”
In these modern days, there are “big” men like Donald Trump (1946-present), the American real estate developer and casino magnate. Trump is exceedingly wealthy and successful, but his ego far exceeds its limits. Among many things, Trump has owned the land the Empire State Building sits on, refers to himself as “The Trump” or “The Donald,” asked Larry King in a live interview if he could “sit back a little…because your breath is very bad,” has tried to trademark the phrase “You’re fired” (a phrase popularized by Trump’s self-aggrandizing hit television program “The Apprentice”), and once in the second grade, he punched his music teacher. “…I didn’t think he knew much about music,” said Trump. “I’m not proud of that, but it’s clear that early on I had a tendency to stand up.” Was it a tendency to stand up, or was it a tendency to push others down?
Donald came by it honestly, though. Donald’s father, Fred Trump, himself a construction magnate, taught little Donald the art of pride. “One day a cement contractor presented Fred Trump with a bill for $900,000 for work on one of his construction projects. Trump cut a $1,000,000 check – just for the pleasure of spending such a sum – and hand-delivered it to the delighted contractor.” Throwing around $100,000, just because one has the ability, hardly means that one should.
“I like thinking big,” Donald Trump once declared. “If you’re going to be thinking anything, you might as well think big.” Trump was certainly thinking big (if he was thinking at all) at the unveiling of the Trump Tower in 1979, Trump’s monument to himself, which at the time was in fact the world’s tallest reinforced concrete structure, unrivaled in its glory. “There has never been anything like this built,” he declared, “in four hundred years.” Is Trump’s personal Tower of Babel warranted because of his success?
Besides Trump, there are many others in society who find it very important that they appear important. There have been men like Winston Churchill, Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who achieved truly remarkable heights in their lives and yet were constantly brought down by their own pride and huge egos. Had these men but kept themselves in check, history might view them in a less jaded light.
Religion has usually been the main source of keeping the pride of man in check, and regardless of religious opinion, humility is quality that all should strive to learn. The Bible is rife with passages on the importance of humility, many of them stemming from the mouth of the great teacher, Jesus Christ.
“And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matt.23:12) says Christ, in his famous Sermon on the Mount. “And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matt.20:27), Christ goes on, showing that the best leader is chiefly concerned for his servants, not himself. “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”(Matt.5:5). This last scripture might conjure up a mental image of the meek of the world finally rising up in open rebellion and taking back what they deserve, but the intended meaning is more likely descriptive the meek people of the world already having what they need, and not vaunting it.
The Book of Job, held by many scholars to be a great work of literature, depicts the tale of a once successful landowner with fields, flocks, servants, and wealth beyond imagination. Through a series of horrid trials, Job loses all of his worldly possessions, most of his family, and his own good health. His friends come to him, confusedly inquiring why he doesn’t just curse God for his ruined state. Job refuses to shift the blame from himself, and sees his struggles as just another inconvenience. He continues to praise God and thank Him, despite the fact that his life is ruined. In reward of Job’s humility and continued allegiance, God allows Job to once again have his fields and flock, his family, his servants, and his wealth. Job doesn’t use this as an opportunity to boast, however, and he persists in his praise of the Lord. Though a possibly austere example for a non-believer, the story of Job is effective in demonstrating how hard humility can be sometimes.
In a more modern example of a Christian leader emphasizing the importance of humility, Ralph W. Sockman, formerly senior pastor of Christ Church (United Methodist) of New York City, said that “True humility is intelligent self-respect which keeps us from thinking too highly (or too meanly) of ourselves. It makes us modest by reminding us how far we have come short of what we can be.”
And Christians by no means have the humility market cornered. Meekness is admired in most cultures. Mohandas K. Gandhi, the great leader of men and devout Hindu, said “I claim to be a simple individual, liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and retrace my steps.” Swami Sivananda, the Hindu founder of the Divine Life Society, stated eloquently that “humility is not cowardice. Meekness is not weakness. Humility and meekness are indeed spiritual powers.” “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues,” says the ancient Chinese philosopher Kong Fu Zi.
Some scientists, philosophers, and even occasional politicians value humility. Simone Veil, the French philosopher and social activist, defines real genius as “nothing else but the supernatural virtue of humility in the domain of thought.” Albert Einstein learned many lessons in humility during the course of his life, making many magnificent discoveries in his life but also going through heaps of work to get there. “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right,” said Einstein, “and a single experiment can prove me wrong.” Ted Turner, the American media mogul and philanthropist, joked “If I only had a little humility, I’d be perfect!”
Even Abe Lincoln had something to say on humility, coming from such common, poor roots. “Common-looking people are the best in the world,” he said. “That is the reason the Lord makes so many of them.” Lincoln is a great example of humility, in that he accepted his flaws, knew what they were, but did not dwell on them, and continued to work to benefit man.
On the college level, competition is rampant. It is natural to seek success and crave competition, but many see the success of others only as success above their own. The goal for many students lies only at the top of the ladder, in getting the best grade in class, in nailing that internship over 30 other applicants. There is nothing wrong with this attitude. It is acceptable to be successful.
The true test, however, is for one to get as high as possible on that ladder, and then, to not only be content with one’s allotted spot, but to help others on their ascent. Applauding others’ achievements while hiding one’s own is a great mark of character, and those who practice this lost art are truly respected by their peers. “Do you wish to be great?” asks St. Augustine, the old Christian scholar and the first archbishop of Canterbury. “Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.”
After hearing all of this talk on humility, what can the reader do in his/her life to secure this foundation of humility? One may allow others to win sometimes. One could serve in stealth, and then blush upon being discovered in these acts of do-goodery. One could speak better and more frequently of others than of oneself. One might be trodden upon, but could meekly accept that inconvenience as an opportunity to be someone else’s stepping-stone.
Humility is often neglected, but is still important and admirable. If in doubt, just remember the words of the great Yankee’s catcher Yogi Berra. “It ain’t the heat; it’s the humility.”

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