In praise of humility [REPOST]

NOTE:  I ran across this post from November 2009 while I was looking for something else, and was struck by it, so I decided to repost it.


There’s a fascinating piece up on Time‘s front page entitled, “The Case for Modesty, in an Age of Arrogance,” by one Nancy Gibbs. Gibbs begins,

Virtues, like viruses, have their seasons of contagion. When catastrophe strikes, generosity spikes like a fever. Courage spreads in the face of tyranny. But some virtues go dormant for generations, as we’ve seen with thrift, making its comeback after 40 years in cold storage. I’m hoping for a sudden outbreak of modesty, a virtue whose time has surely come.

In truth, what she really wants to talk about is not modesty but humility (which, as she notes, can be practiced in many ways: “Try taking up golf. Or making your own bagels. Or raising a teenager”); but I don’t have a problem with that, especially as she has good things to say about humility and its importance.

Modesty in private life is attractive, but in public life it is essential, especially now, when those who immodestly claimed to Know It All have Wiped Us Out. The problems we face are too fierce to accommodate arrogance. Humility leaves room for complexity, honors honest dissent, welcomes the outlandish idea that sweeps past ideology and feeds invention. We want to reimagine the health-care system, confront climate change, save our kids from a financial avalanche? The odds are much better if we come to the table assuming we don’t already have all the answers. . . .

Humility and modesty need not be weakness or servility; they can be marks of strength, the courage to confront a challenge knowing that the outcome is in doubt. Ronald Reagan, for all his cold-warrior confidence, projected a personal modesty that served his political agenda well. I still don’t know what President Obama’s core principles are, but the fact that he even pays lip service to humility as one of them could give him the upper hand in the war for the souls of independents—a group that’s larger now than at any time in the past 70 years. . . .

But I heed Jane Austen’s warning that “nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.” If Obama appears proud of how humble and open-minded he is, if he demonizes opponents instead of debating them, if his actual choices are quietly ideological while his rhetoric flamboyantly inclusive, he will be missing a great opportunity—and have much to be modest about.

Interesting closing comment, that.


Looking back from the last year of Barack Obama’s second term, Austen’s warning was aptly noted.  The President missed a great opportunity.  Here’s hoping somebody learns a lesson from his example; another term or two of that sort of attitude—from either party—could be disastrous.  The alarm Gibbs was sounding was urgent six years ago; it’s only the more so now.


Image:  Black hole Cygnus X-1.  Image credit:  NASA/CXC/M.Weiss.  Public domain.

Posted in Barack Obama, Culture and society, Politics.

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