I sometimes wonder when and why we have some of the attitudes we seem to have. Not that long ago most of us valued humility and modesty as how Americans should act. We used to believe that no one needed to “blow his own horn.” Over two centuries our leaders avoided looking as though they saw themselves as great.
It reminds me of a saying my mother taught my brother and sisters and me: “Self praise stinks.”
I have no idea why this changed, but I distinctly remember a boxer named Cassius Clay, later known as Mohammed Ali proclaiming loudly, “I am the greatest.” He was two years older than I and like many others at the time, we did not like the way he boasted, the opposite of how we thought an athlete should act; a lot of people would have rather he let his record speak for itself.
The feeling was that humility was a trait that marked the really great. Great men, great leaders would be recognized by their actions and proclaiming one’s own greatness was out of character. A long time ago a teacher of mine used a quote by St. Vincent de Paul to keep us all in line. It said, “Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.”
Lately, and by that I mean for the past few decades, people seem to have become more and more conceited, egotistic, overbearing, and pompous. All through our history leaders attributed their success to hard work, determination, and the grace of God. They almost never took credit for themselves and went out of their away to give credit to others.
Abraham Lincoln said the following in what is one of the greatest speeches in American history: “ The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here” in referring to his speech at Gettysburg. The world took note and has long remembered that speech.
Much later the generation that has become known as the “greatest generation” were the men and women who fought beside our Allies to defeat Nazi Germany. When those men and women came back, they did not spend their time telling everyone how great they were or how valiantly they had fought in he fields and forests of France and Italy and Germany. I had quite a few teachers who were veterans of that war and the most any of them ever said about it was, “We were just doing our job.”
They were the really tough ones, the strong ones, the brave ones who allowed what they had done to speak for itself. And we admired them for their humility.
It looks however as though the time of the strong, silent hero has gone. Today we hear some of our leaders brag about how great they are, the great things they have done, about how no one else has ever been as great as they.
I don’t believe it.
My father and my father-in-law were the strongest men I have ever known. Dad spent years working in the depths of coal mines before he turned to farming. I never heard him utter a word about how great a miner he had been, or how he was the hardest woking man in the county. They were both strong men who raised families when it was not easy. They did not brag or boast; they just did what had to be done with no excuses.
How do we get back got those times, assuming that we even want to? I think the country wold be better off with a lot more humility and a lot less egotism. We can read in the Bible that if a man strikes you on the cheek do not strike him back, but turn the other cheek, and if a man sues you for your coat, give him your cloak also.
How do we get to that place? It won’t happen overnight and it won’t be easy. We need to remember a few things.
First, we can control some things; other things are beyond our control.
One thing that we cannot control is how others see the world. A view of the world is personal to everyone. For decades I was sure that I had not grown up as a privileged individual. My family was not rich or powerful; we were middle class. For a short time I even felt as through I might be disadvantaged because I belonged to the majority. Back then some felt that minorities were being given advantages that we were not.
I now see that I had, indeed, enjoyed privileges not available to many others. I am a white male and I never gave it a thought that in 1962, the year I graduated from high school. Girls my age had about four choices. They could be “secretaries’’ or take a job in that category; they could be nurses or teachers or they could get married and become housewives.
Doctors? That was a profession for men, same for lawyers, engineers and architects. Those were professions for “men.” So just being a male then put me in a class that enjoyed the privilege of profession.
Almost no one’s world view in the early sixties in rural America included women doing what they called “men’s jobs.”
And in most ways today is is equally futile to think we can change another’s view of the world. Views like those do not depend on logic, reason or evidence. They are mostly emotional views and no logic, reason or evidence will change them.
So if I cannot change another’s world view, what can I change?
First, can change the way I see the world.
I am working on that, and it is a work in progress. I think that realizing that I have privileges not accorded to some others is a first step.
I did not have to warn my two sons of how to behave if they were stopped by the police, and I do not have to worry about how I should behave in that situation, but realizing that others, especially others of another skin color may not have that advantage is a first step.
Second, while I don’t favor special treatment for anyone. I have come to realize that everyone is entitled to the SAME treatment, neither better nor worse.
That’s a view that I am working on for myself. I am also working on a belief that others may know more than I; I do not know everything.
Third, I have to realize that the world does not begin and end within ten miles of where I live. For years I taught students a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Renascence” that closes with these words: “The world stands out on either side/ No wider than the heart is wide;/ Above the world is stretched the sky,/ No higher than the soul is high./ The heart can push the sea and land/ Farther away on either hand;/ The soul can split the sky in two,/ And let the face of God shine through./ But East and West will pinch the heart/ That can not keep them pushed apart.” The kids memorized that stanza and so did I; time for me to learn it again.
I taught it but I didn’t live it. Now I’m working on living that thought.
Finally, I am working on the idea that change is not my enemy. Just as past generations had to accept the changes that took place in their lifetime, I have come to realize that the changes in my generation have to be not just accepted but welcomed. Who knows, I may even get a “smart” phone one of these days and learn how to text.