Humility: A Key Virtue of the Post-Liberal Order
Humility is one of those traits of good character we are told we need to cultivate, but our egalitarian society makes it almost impossible. It will be vital for a post-liberal world.
Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth. Numbers 12:3
Today, we read a passage like this and we have no idea what to do with it. What could they possibly mean by this? It is hard for us to picture a man who went up a mountain and met God as “humble.” Was he self deprecating? Was he shy? Did he put himself down? Did he make himself smaller? Did people push him around? Our culture makes a proper understanding of humility almost impossible, so much so that it’s almost an alien concept to us today. I am going to propose a definition which I picked up along the way and has served me well. But, when I work through the implications of it for people today, most end up rejecting it, in large part because our culture makes it hard to grasp the idea of humility. This inability, I would argue, contributes to many of the problems we face today in our society.
So how would I define humility?
Humility is being able to see ourselves as we are, no more, no less.
With this definition in hand we can begin to unpack its implications. Let’s ease into it with the low hanging fruit. Right off the bat it kind of has a nice feel to it. Yes, we think. No one should think too highly of themselves. Neither do we want people trying to diminish themselves. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins, so not thinking too highly of yourself is a good thing. But people can also try to justify beating up on themselves, tearing themselves down, depreciating who they are and their value in some vain attempt not to seem too proud. So, yeah, that seems good. Just see yourself as you are, not more, not less.
Let’s shift the scene a little. You are a gifted athlete. Very gifted. You play a team sport. You are by far the most talented person on your team. You look at yourself and, seeing yourself as no more or less than you are, seeing yourself exactly as you are, you tell yourself: “I am the most talented person on this team.” So now that you have seen yourself clearly, and with true humility, what do you do with this knowledge? Do you lord it over your team mates? Do you make a point of belittling your team mates for their lack of talent? Do you try to hide or shy away from your talent, holding back so as not seem better than your team mates? Believe it or not, this last thought is a real problem when coaching women’s sports. Girls don’t like to stand out and be thought of as better than their team mates. They will underperform relative to their talent so as to appear no more talented than the others. Boys, on the other hand, who tend to focus on dominance, hierarchy and the pecking order of one up/one down will tend to lord their talent over others. So what is the correct response?
How do you acknowledge who you are, as you are? How do you embrace and live out a proper humility? It is a hard thing to sketch out with words, but it is the kind of thing that we know when we see it. Acknowledging that you are the most talented player on the team means accepting that with this tremendous athletic ability comes great responsibility. You may not want this responsibility. You might prefer to be just one of the guys, a role player. But, your ability has thrust you into a role that you must now accept. You must become “the star player.” This role touches deep currents, archetypes, that you must embrace if you are to be who you are, no more, no less.
You must shoulder responsibility. You are the guy expected to have the ball in your hands in the crucial moment of the game. The spotlight will be on you. All of the glory. All of the crushing heart ache. You must be the emotional spark of your team. You must be its driving energy. You must be an example. First in the practice facility. Last one to leave the building. You work harder. More film study, more reps. When others are down, you do not give up. You fight to the end and carry the team on your back if you have to. You will try to elevate the play of your team mates, and carry them with your ability when they are not capable of stepping up. When they succeed, it is your job to praise your team mates, to lift them up and notice their contributions. Yes, you will likely have no choice but to talk about that final game winning play, but you will do so in a way that sees it no more or no less than it was. Your team mates will feel that they are more by playing with you than if they played on their own. You will take responsibility for the losses. You never throw your team mates under the bus. We know this kind leader. It is the man people follow. They would play through a wall for him. He is who he is, no more, no less. He is the star of his team. There are rewards. There are responsibilities. The two come together. The true star player is who he is, no more, no less. He embodies the archetype.
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