In preparing for this post, I searched for quotes from accomplished, and necessarily confident, historical figures extolling the virtue and necessity of humility. I expected to find wisdom from Martin Luther King, for instance, and I am sure he had great things to say about humility in his extraordinary life which exuded wisdom, confidence, and humility. But quickly I came upon the following from Helen Keller which strikes at the heart of this message:
I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.Keller, against incredible odds, indeed did accomplish a great and noble task in publicly sharing her wisdom with posterity. But she had the humility to recognize that without the goodness of the multitudes there would be no substance from which the great and noble could emanate.
We require the talents of many, as without each other all that is good falls apart. We need the philosophers, the teachers, the artists, the scientists, the manufacturers, the workers, the mothers and fathers, the logicians, the planners, the cleaners, and the earnest efforts of the humblest among us. In a well-functioning dignitarian society each role is carried out for the benefit of everyone, all are recognized for their contributions, and each can retain his or her dignity. Our own Western society functions far better than many, indeed in many ways amazingly well, but leaves plenty room for improvement, and in some areas dire need for improvement.
When we are able to take a role in our society, cognizant of the contribution we can make in it, we can and should be satisfied with our place in the world. We can sharpen our talents, expand our abilities, and improve on our contribution, but clearly no one can do it all. Everyone, no matter how great their accomplishments, is indebted not only to the "giants" who preceded them, but also to the many nameless contributors without whom they never would have had the platform from which to realize their greatness.
I feel I have some talent for expressing my thoughts. I feel no obligation to be the most brilliant philosopher to share my perspectives on our world for public scrutiny. I know I have some things wrong, but I'll do my best to honestly share what I believe to be true. Because the things I think about frequently have me making moral judgments, I am keenly aware of the need to guard against the hubris of feeling personally morally superior, because I know that not to be the case. I can look not only to failures in my past, but also to flaws in my current character and behavior to see my own warts. But it is a critical contribution to our society that we speak to a greater vision, and celebrate the best of human values. Millions upon millions of people do these things every day in large ways and small ways. Most parents do it with their children. It is unreasonable and unnecessary that we require of anyone addressing a moral concern that they be without flaw in regard to the area which they are addressing. Indeed, who better to speak to at-risk youth than an ex-con who took the wrong turn himself at their age?
Yet we are frequently timid, too timid, about speaking to the greater vision we may see, especially when that means speaking truth to power, because of doubts about our own truths as well as fear of repercussions. Some timidity is warranted, though, lest we become smug and self-righteous in our own surety. Dee Eisenhauer in a beautiful statement for peace, reminds us
Humility will help us cool our jets a little even as we seek to create peace. Here is a teaching I have found helpful for many years: I am right about 80% of what I believe and wrong about 20%; the trouble is, I don’t know which is the 80 and which is the 20. Some reserve even about our best ideas is appropriate. It’s not that there is no “right” and “wrong” -—a huge liberal mistake—- but in our speech we seek always to persuade and not pulverize, realizing we may be in error.Eisenhauer's caution does not grant us leave from speaking our truth, but rather counsels care in how we do so. If the world only hears from those who (think they) are 100% right, I fear for her prospects.
The web has made such public introspection easily available, so I've decided to hang my ideas out here, while looking for other means to speak my truths and challenge authority where I believe it to be in error. My readership has remained relatively small, which has limited my temptation into hubris about the importance of what I have to say. But the nature of my explorations lends itself to big ideas, and the danger of succumbing to self congratulation always lurks around the corner. I've appreciated tremendously kind comments and emails from readers who have appreciated my words and have expanded my own perceptions with their offerings. Such exchanges keep me motivated to continue to explore and share, both here and in the rest of my daily encounters. But Keller reminds us that the small kind acts of those around us, nobly undertaken, provide the push for advancing the causes that sustain our hope for a better future.