Ramsey Marshall reflects on a long-lost quality that’s desperately needed today.
Humility is a vastly under-rated quality in human beings these days. We are reeling from political bombast; boasting seems to drown out even the most mundane conversations. We pile up words extolling our own virtues, carving our opinions onto the body politic, whether they are found milling in rallies of thousands, or leaning across the bar at the pub down on the corner. Compared to hubris, humility is wan and tame; it seems to cower in the thunder of our self-promoted and seemingly superior qualities.
This need to assert our salutary singularity, often at the expense of others, seems a particularly human trait. Hubris becomes us, we breathe it in and breathe it out. We relentlessly promote ourselves, perhaps to ensure that in this ephemeral universe, we are ascendant and singular, unique and prevailing.
And yet, the small voice, the one that proffers no overbearing certainty, still remains. We can hear it in the good works of those we would feel superior to, but quietly admire. Humility has qualities of redemption and grace that restore us to our proper place in the universe, and we are drawn to the ones who understand this quality and keep it operative in their lives.
In these days of assimilation, I find myself clinging to one of the spiritual values I carry from my Jewish upbringing—the deep humility of ‘tzedakah,, the charity we give with no name on it— the corners of the field that are un-harvested and left for the widows and orphans. We have a clear and proscribed obligation to give charity to the poor and those without, but we are required to do so with anonymity and humility.
By our very humanity, we have an obligation to the Universe to heal the world, not track receipts like an accountant. Really, what the recipient of that charity does with our largesse is of no concern to us. We cannot give charity with strings attached under the doctrine of tzedakah. Just as our requirement to give is between the Universe, and us, what the given does with that charity is between them and the Universe. Tzedakah does away with the vanity of attaching our name to our good works. We are humbled in our obedience to heal the world. The act, and not the actor, is paramount. It is the essence of humility.
There is a quiet wisdom to humility. Dave Utley, whose son Chase played all-star baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies for a dozen years, understands that. “I told my son,” he remembers, “that if you’re as good as you think you are, people will tell you that. You don’t have to tell them.” That is a simple and elegant understanding of humility, and how it operates. Play within yourself, the old coach’s admonition, made manifest.
In 1981, during a four-gig performance at the old Tralfamadore Café in Buffalo, I interviewed Pat Metheny, the virtuoso jazz guitar player. Even then, early in a career that would wind its way through twenty Grammy awards and countless accolades from magazines and critics polls, Metheny was acknowledged as a massive talent. After selection as Guitar Player magazine’s Guitarist of the Year—something he would do for five consecutive years—I asked him how he coped with receiving such acclaim at the tender age of twenty-seven.
He was thoughtful about it.
“It’s funny you should ask that question right now,” he said. “Last night in Rochester, the band and I got into an amazing groove—transcendent. And I realized, for the first time in my life, if I worked hard at this, stayed focused and worked, I might get good at it.”
The man was utterly sincere. Despite having already been hailed as a “once-in-a-generation” talent, Metheny essentially chose to ignore the fans, the critics, the chatter. He had been gifted with a glimpse of what he could become, and understood how he needed to get there. He kept his eyes on the prize and his ego in check. That’s humility.
Unlike hubris, humility takes practice. You work at it. And understanding your place in the world, without adornment, is actually a very liberating experience. I became a far better manager of people when I realized the best workplace ideas I ever had came out of the mouths of others. It’s getting it done that matters; less so, who actually gets credited with the work, with the idea.
A world threaded with humility would be a quieter place, less boastful. It would be a more compassionate and considerate place. We would strive no less, and still achieve as much, but we would be free to acknowledge our debt to one another. It would be a world where our own virtues would still be sung, not just by ourselves, but by a chorus of our peers.
Humility, in the end, is a commitment to community. It goes beyond the rugged individualism of hubris. It is an end unto itself, a way out of the endless spiral of credit seeking and self-aggrandizing. Humility perpetuates, hubris denigrates. And with humility, we are elevated.
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