Humility, the world's greatest human trait

December 15, 2002|By Daniel Meltzer

NEW YORK - I live in the "greatest city in the world" in the "greatest nation on Earth." All Americans, all of creation, have been hearing this for decades.

U.S. presidents and New York City mayors, among others, have been programmatically reminding all of humanity of these notions since the early '80s. Am I the only one who winces every time the commander in chief or Hizzoner shoots his mouth off about how much better than everyone else we are?

Another national leader boasted long and loud of his people's superiority. He ultimately died by his own hand in a Berlin bunker while his "superior" nation was being overrun from east and west and pounded into talcum powder by B-29s.

Muhammad Ali was, arguably and as he so diligently harangued his challengers, "the greatest" in the ring. But his tenure at the top, as well as his health, were foreshortened by the pummeling from those he dared to try to disprove his claim.

Hubris, the tragic flaw of pride that the ancient Greeks, and later William Shakespeare, exploited to great advantage in their stage tragedies, is something to which all mortals, especially those of high station, are said to be prone. Ultimately, and inexorably, the classics warn us, it leads to their downfall. "Pride goeth before destruction," the Bible teaches, "and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18).

In my own family, bragging about anything was strictly forbidden for various reasons. As descendants of refugees from Czarist cruelties, we had been taught not to call attention to ourselves. Boasting of good fortune can be hurtful to the feelings of the less fortunate. It's just stupid and tasteless to brag, and it invites envy and scorn - stink-bombs in your gym locker, gum or thumbtacks on your seat or in your hair and challenges from bullies who are usually bigger and much meaner than you are.

Is Britain not a great nation? Canada? France? Luxembourg? Are Mexicans not a proud people? The Senegalese? Isn't London a great city? Paris? Vienna? San Francisco? Prague? Minneapolis? Baltimore?

A denial of parity with others seems inseparable now from the notion of being an American. Perhaps this is why we may never truly know total racial and ethnic harmony in this country. Competition seems to have been engineered into our DNA. Not only must you constantly be looking out for No. 1, but who can face the shame of NOT being No. 1?

Rivalry seems to feed all of our commercial, social and civic enterprises. From the U.S. Open to TV ratings to the Oscars to who gives the best party, who makes the best cola, who has the absolutely latest version of the newest gadget, the hottest car, the best seats on Broadway, the choicest apartment, country or beach home, the top cosmetic surgeon, pedigreed dog or most accomplished offspring. Many Americans behave as though bragging rights are part of the Bill of Rights.

The truly great, we were taught once upon a time, do their work quietly, and acknowledge and honor the feelings and integrity of others. To be great, ironically, meant you could never actually boast of being great. Anyone who did was what we called a jerk.

Daniel Meltzer is a playwright and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.

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