San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey just won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. (The Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera won the AL MVP.) I hope neither tells the world, “I’m humbled.” Baseball players often say that, given the game’s roots in small-town America where seemingly no one can be humble enough. But I’m rankled by false humility and the inability to offer a gracious thank you. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing.
I’m taking a class on Mussar (ethics or soul-traits) with Rabbi Larry Raphael at Congregation Sherith Israel. We’re reading Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar by Alan Morinis. From a Jewish perspective, humility doesn’t mean denying one’s worth but rather acknowledging it without inflating it. Morinis graphs the teachings of Maimonides in which humility runs on a scale from self-debasement (“I’m not worthy”) to arrogance (“I am the greatest.”) Writes Morinis, “Proper humility means having the right relationship to self, giving self neither too big nor too small a role in your life.”
Recently, we’ve seen humility practiced and also abandoned. Republicans thought that Mitt Romney would be a shoo-in to win the presidency. We know how that went. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie showed humility by complimenting Federal relief efforts and President Obama. He also wisely instituted alternate-day gas rationing. In New York City, according to The New York Times (11-9-12), Mayor Michael Bloomberg considered rationing “and also mused in the Sunday meeting that perhaps the best option was to simply allow the free market to dictate how people would find gas.” Days later, the hubris of free markets having failed, Mayor Bloomberg instituted rationing. The situation improved immediately.
Recent geopolitical events also have demonstrated a lack of humility—and disastrously so. The George W. Bush administration believed that the United States could assert its will anywhere—even in the treacherous Middle East. It provided us with debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. So did our generals, according to Thomas E. Ricks (“General Failure”) in the November Atlantic Monthly. Ricks states that American generals, particularly after World War Two, increasingly have let a lack of humility keep them from developing more informed and nuanced understandings of the wars they led and the broader, long-term implications of their decisions.
Now we approach the Fiscal Cliff. If President Obama and Congress believe they have solutions to America’s sluggish economic growth and burdensome deficit, that’s good. Problem solving requires healthy egos. Who would vote for a candidate who says, “I have no clue but give me your vote anyway”? On the other hand, real humility dictates that we learn from others and that while we have thought through our positions, we may have overlooked other options along the way.
Hopefully the President and Congress will agree on sound policy decisions in the coming weeks. If so, the culture of politics is not likely to lead them to say, “I’m humbled.” But if uncompromising partisanship leads us over the cliff the American people will rightly say, “You have a lot to be humble about.” And just maybe, voters will do something about it in 2014.
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