Since it has become clear that we are currently facing a serious pandemic, my first inclination was to make this an “I told you so” essay and refer to a previous blog in which I quoted epidemiologists who assured us that future pandemics were inevitable. However, my self-righteousness was dimmed with the realization that I belonged in the high-risk category for serious complications from this bug. It also occurred to me that a time of crisis may be an appropriate time to examine our values as such times put them to the test. Thus, I decided to proceed as planned with a look at humility, which Confucius said was “the foundation of all virtues.”
As I mentioned in the first post of this series, the purpose of values is to allow us to get along with each other and thereby accomplish things. Alone we are relatively helpless, together we can and do move mountains. Those with particular expertise in the management of pandemics emphasize the importance of our helping each other since our best weapon for containing the disease lies in quarantining those who are infected, leaving them dependent on others for life’s necessities.
United We Stand. Divided We Fall.
It seems to me that during those major crises which have occurred during my lifetime, there has been a tendency for us to come together as a nation although; there have always been a few looking to exploit any such situation. Most would agree that the country is now more divided than it has been for the past 150 years, and I was struck by the timeliness of the subject of today’s blog when I ran into a quote from Socrates: “Pride divides the men, humility joins them.” I believe it safe to say that few of those faithful fans of our President would suggest that he oozes humility, and indeed his attempts to reassure have left us even farther apart. I can’t help but wonder if that humility deficit contributes in some way to our widening breach.
Much of my career was spent dealing with patients who suffered from a poor self-image. In some cases their dislike of themselves had resulted in lives of misery and even self-destructive behaviors. Such problems are often confused with the concept of humility. As a matter of fact, some dictionaries list words such as meek, shy, and submissive as synonyms, but humility has nothing to do with wimpiness or poor self-esteem. It is on the contrary a mark of strength. In that regard, Rick Warren’s quote from C.S. Lewis that appears in Warren’s book (The Purpose Driven Life) is most helpful:
“True humility is not thinking less of yourself…it is thinking of yourself less.” C.S. Lewis
Rick Warren is quoted as saying:
“Humility isn’t denying your strengths, it’s being honest about your weaknesses.”
Humility offers a kind of freedom not accessible to the braggart, for humble people have nothing to prove. One person has anonymously defined humility as synonymous with the word “Truth” and the long-held maxim that a good liar must have a good memory still holds true. But the comfort offered by humility is best expressed by Mother Teresa:
“If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.”
Humility is after all an expression of concern for one’s fellow man.
Pride: The Opposite of Humility
Pride on the other hand is the opposite of humility, and its symptom is arrogance, which masks insecurity. My Father who was well known for his pithy comments referred to those who he thought were arrogant with the phrase: “He thinks his shit don’t stink.” Ezra Taft Benson, Politician/Mormon leader said “Pride is concerned with who is right, humility is concerned with what is right. We read in Proverbs 11:2 “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Without humility, one can hardly ever know what others feel, for when empathy is lacking, relationships are apt to be superficial. When we are self-absorbed, the needs of others go largely unnoticed.
It is of course natural to feel pleased with our accomplishments and to be admired for them, but we humans are often prone to toot our own horn too loudly.
There is a Chinese proverb which gives the best advice:
“Be like the bamboo, the higher you grow the deeper you bow”
The Muslim prophet Muhammad said:
“The best of people is the one who humbles himself the more his rank increases”
Although history suggests he did not always follow it, Theodore Roosevelt advised: “Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.” When bragging about ourselves, we will often find ourselves treated with disgust rather than the respect which we are seeking. We are more likely to find respect when we let our deeds do the talking.
To prepare for this blog post, I noted a lot in the literature which associated humility with both leadership and wisdom. As you may have noticed, I am particularly fond of those one-liners which say a lot in a few words. For example Socrates, who most people think was a bright fellow, said:
“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.”
A few centuries later, Einstein would echo the same sentiment by saying:
“A true genius admits that he/she knows nothing.”
However, some wise quotes also originate from non-genius types such as Mike Tyson who allegedly said: “If you are not humble, life will visit humbleness upon you,” thus seeming to echo the previous mentioned quote from Proverbs. There was also Pauline, part time philosopher and full-time cleaning lady who once informed me: “They ain’t no bird flies so high that he don’t have to come down for a drink.”
The Humility/Wisdom Connection
Initially, I was puzzled by those attempts to link humility with wisdom until it occurred to me that if wisdom is the possession of truth coupled with the ability to interpret it, it follows that pride might get in the way of finding it. Then I discovered that someone had defined humility as “staying teachable, regardless of how much you already know.” So much for those guys/girls who “know it all.”
It is in times of crisis that leadership becomes our most valuable asset. Indeed, without it, failure is likely, if not inevitable, and humility has time and again shown itself to be a prerequisite for leadership. Now we are facing a crisis with the potential to create havoc worldwide. Leadership requires the ability to analyze, organize, plan and implement, but of equal importance, is the ability to inspire and empathize. A good leader must adhere to the truth no matter how dire the circumstances. Hollow reassurances or sugar-coating undermine confidence and respect. Our greatest fears are of the unknown, and there is much we don’t know about this pandemic. Unchecked fear without hope leads to panic. A good leader will validate the fear while offering hope.
An oft quoted example in which those criteria were satisfied was in Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural speech. The country was in the midst of a depression so severe that people were going hungry and the very survival of the country was in question. It began with that most famous line: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It marked a turning point leading the country from the depths of despair to a newfound sense of hopefulness. A second speech heard during my lifetime was Churchill’s never surrender speech in 1940. It also gets high marks by satisfying all the previously mentioned criteria for humility. It succeeded in motivating the entire English citizenry in a time of extreme fear and uncertainty.
In both these addresses you will find few first-person singular pronouns for as is always the case with humility the focus is not on oneself, but concern for others. Its opposite, which we call narcissism, is concern for self only. With that in mind, little wonder that our malignantly narcissistic leader is unlikely to go down in history as the humility President. During the past week, I have spared myself the agony of watching the Donald’s daily briefings on the alleged progress on dealing with the corona virus. In any other context, they would be laughable, but with the seriousness of this pandemic they prompt me with the desire to take my 12 gauge to the TV.
The Poster Child for Failed and Flawed Leadership
Yesterday, I relented and watched one of our dear leader’s ego massages disguised as a news conference. I endured this disgusting production in spite of the nausea produced by watching that pathetic group of ass kissers pay homage to the person who has once again demonstrated his incompetence by doing a Nero impersonation. The group stands shoulder to shoulder, ignoring admonitions from epidemiologists to maintain six feet of separation. The diminutive Dr. Faucci stood with arms folded on his chest, a clear message that he was not receptive to this charade.
Trump began with one of his classic truthful but not wholly truthful statements. He proudly announced that the U.S. had now done more tests for the virus than had South Korea, failing to mention that our population is 5 times larger, which means our per capita rate is much lower. This was followed by a series of self-congratulatory remarks about how he had now brought the situation under control in spite of having inherited a totally dysfunctional CDC, failing to mention that he had recently proposed draconian cuts to their budget. There was the usual litany of blaming for any of the pandemic associated problems. (NOTE: Trump’s budget proposals called for 17% cut to the CDC for Fiscal 2018; a 19.6% cut in Fiscal 2019; $750.6 million cut in Fiscal 2020; and $693.3 million (9%) cut for 2021, which Trump sent to Congress o Feb. 10, after the COVID-19 outbreak began and the first U.S. case was confirmed on Jan. 20. However, these were the President’s proposals to cut the budget. We are fortunate our founders understood the balance of power. Check your Civics lessons. The Congress is in charge of the country’s budget. Fortunately, they rejected these drastic cuts. Here is link where the eshrink editor retrieved that information.
His concerns about the pandemic were mostly about its effect on the stock market, but he was most reassuring, saying he expected the worst to be over in a couple of weeks so that people could go back to work and the economy would bounce back bigger and better than ever. This was followed by a parade of his adoring sycophants, who one by one heaped praise on the great one for having saved thousands of lives through his tireless efforts (must have cut into his golf game big time). Then comes scrawny Dr. Faucci who steps up to the mic to heroically speak truth to the power that towers next to him, by contradicting much of what the Donald has just said. The show ended with the President rudely accusing one of the reporters of being rude for asking a seemingly benign question, then continuing on with a rant about the poor guy’s competence, objectivity and other shortcomings, barely stopping short of a commentary about his mother’s lineage.
Portraits of Successful Leadership
Today I watched the reports by both the New York Governor and my own governor. In both cases, the governors and their staffs were assembled in chairs with the recommended distance between them. They were both effusive in their accolades for those involved in dealing with the crisis, but thankfully not for themselves. They acknowledged our distress and fearfulness, but were brutally honest about what lay ahead. There were facts galore (actually more than I needed) and a plan of action was laid out along with what was already being done. We were given assurances that we were not alone. I was still worried, but more hopeful. I gained a new respect for my governor who I previously labeled as a doofus (he is a republican after all). He gained not only my vote, but my confidence in his ability to deal with the threat, and left me feeling as if we really were in this thing together.
Yep, humility definitely works better than bluster.
Next topic in the values series will be respect if I can find some examples.