Humilitas– Part Seven

Chapter 7 begins in a disconcerting fashion quoting a moral philosopher from Edinburgh (John Macmurray) who seems to think that the saying of Jesus–’Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’  is a cause and effect statement!  He then goes on to suggest that this means that Jesus was hardly an advocate for the ‘virtue is its own reward school’.  Were that not enough, Dickson apparently agrees with Macmurray’s central premise, for he says “virtue is not an ethereal preparation for ‘otherworldly’ existence; it is practical engagement in the here-and-now and has untold social implications and benefits for those who walk in the path”. (p. 116).

Before this train gets too far down the track, I need to say ‘hold the fort’.  Jesus is not talking about social cause and effect.  Indeed he is talking about eschatological rewards for those who live by the Gospel now— the meek will not inherit the world here and now by their meekness or because of their meekness.   No, when the Kingdom comes fully on earth with the return of Christ, then, and then only will they inherit.   Whether or not Jesus believed there are good consequences to good behavior here and now, and perhaps he did,  this beatitude has absolutely nothing to do with it, and Macmurray’s exegesis of the text is simply wrong, as is his conclusion that Jesus would have not affirmed that virtue is it’s own reward.    It seems clear to me that in his call to true cross-bearing and self-sacrifice and servanthood Jesus is indeed calling his disciples to disinterested virtue, not virtue done for what one can get out of it, now or later.

I would prefer to say that God has created a moral universe where virtue, in this case humility, has fringe benefits to the humble one.  For example, Dickson points to the fact that scholars at conferences who think they know it all and are arrogant seldom learn anything knew whereas the humble scholar learns from constructive criticism and from truly listening to others and reconsidering things.  Those who listen poorly learn slowly— if at all.   Dickson gives various hypothetical examples, and of course he is right.  The person who is smart enough to know he or she doesn’t know everything and isn’t offended at a friendly critique, is a person wide open to continue to learn and grow.  A person who feels they must defend their own turf all time, and tear down the opposition, has put up walls to learning things.   Dickson then goes on to show that discovery, including new discoveries often require the conquest of human nature and the predisposition to dismiss anything really new which at first appears strange or even absurd.    Let me give you a personal example.  The real advent of cable TV, and so pay TV on a wide scale, came in the early 1980s.  With it also came bottled water for sale in grocery stores and not long thereafter computers and cell phones, and a thousand other things.  Now when I first heard about pay TV and pay water, I just laughed and said to myself ‘What sort of fool would pay for something they can already get for free’?   As it turns out,  quite a lot of us and the reason of course was that the manufactures figured out a way to mostly take away free TV,  and make bottled water increasingly attractive, even to those not in the jet set.   Human nature has a tendency to assume that the settled and tried and true must be better than the brand new,  but the technological revolution has turned this entirely on its head— so that the new is assumed to be true and the latest is assumed to be the greatest.

Dickson then turns to G.K. Chesterton’s famous book, Orthodoxy (a book I would encourage all my readers to get and read and read and read), to make further points about humility (p. 120). Chesterton was convinced that human pride is the engine of mediocrity, for it breeds the notion that we have arrived, that we are complete, that we are already the best, that there is little left to learn.  Dickson then makes a plea that we take the more vulnerable position of taking the risk of being wrong, accepting correction for being wrong and asking others how one can do or say something better.  Human growth and development can indeed come from humility.  But at the same time there are humble people who have little capacity to learn, sadly.  It is not just humility that leads to learning and growth and discovery. It is several factors that lead to this.  I agree however that a commitment to life long learning necessarily involves a commitment to a recognition that we need to keep learning and do not know enough, and this in turn requires some humility about one’s self.   I would say that as one gets older, and starts forgetting more and more things,  that fact in itself should be a humility producing process.  Life and aging makes you more and more aware of your limitations, including your mental ones.  

Dickson has been reading a good deal of the leadership literature, both sacred and secular, and he goes on to talk about ‘the undefended leader’ being the wise leader.  Leaders have a tendency to defend themselves, and try to separate what is frontstage and public in their lives from what is backstage and private.  In front of the corporation or public, the leader appears forecful, focused, unfazed, decisive.  Privately things are different where he struggles with his own doubts, unresolved problems,  unmet but strongly felt needs.   Now Dickson’s point is not that one’s private life should be an open book to all, but that an overly defensive and unhumble person will think and experience a disconnect between the front and back stages of their life, will not listen to criticism and this whole deal can lead to isolation, dishonesty, and immoral behavior.  We may think of the recent example of Anthony Weiner.

Dickson is also correct that often the most arrogant and boastful, those who feel they most need to be that way, are in fact the most insecure.  If you have a healthy view, a realistic view of your strengths and weaknesses you not only don’t need others kudos to affirm it, you also don’t feel compelled to keep on tooting your own horn.  Humility may signal security in one’s own skin, and it can foster it as well (p.  126).  Dickson makes another helpful point– a healthy sense of self-worth comes far more from service than from achievement, far more from giving than from taking.  He adds that this is in part because high achievement is both rare and difficult.  Think for a minute about a championship team in some sport.  Now only one team can be the final and outright champ.  Every other team lives with a nagging sense that to some degree they failed or came up short.  All sorts of persons set themselves up for failure if they measure their self-worth by how much they have ‘won’ or ‘achieved’ in life.   Think about it for a moment.   A championship can come down to a mistake,  pure luck, an accident, a failure on the other team’s part rather than an achievement of one’s own.  There are so many many factors other than pure good play that can lead to a championship.   Sometimes its just a matter of believing you can accomplish something and having an opportunity.

Take for a moment my beloved 2004 Red Sox, the self-dubbed band of ‘idiots’. They were self-effacing and fun loving.  And in the American League championship they lost the first three games to the dreaded Yankees.  In Game Four they were down to their last gasp— inserting pinch runner Dave Roberts late in the game with the specific instructions to steal second and get in scoring position— or else the season was over.  The whole team’s hope  for a championship season rested on that one play.  And it happened!  As Kevin Millar said before that game “don’t let us win this first one, or you will be in trouble”.   The Yankees were— the Red Sox went on to win four straight, and take the World Series rather easily.   It all turned on one little thing.   Now a smart person is a humble person in such a team sport because they realize they did not achieve or accomplish anything without a lot of help, and indeed they might not have achieved their goals just because of dumb luck or an injury, or  the weather, etc.    You catch my drift.  You can control how well you serve and how hard you try, but you cannot engineer success.  There are too many factors in play.  Better to measure yourself by what you can control and can do.

At the end of the chapter there are some good examples of how arrogance can prevent someone from changing something when change is badly needed.  It is better to concede mistakes, apologize, fix the mistake, and move on.  How one responds to a problem will show you a lot about whether you are humble or not.  Humility is indeed winsome, and it leads to correction of errors as well.


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