Humility in the modern world

In the Jewish tradition, Moses is the greatest and most revered Jewish leader and figure of all. He is also regarded as the most humble: “Now the man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth”. Since the days of Moses, no Jewish figure has approached this sublime combination of having reached at one and the same time both the peak of greatness and humility. The coupling of these two qualities paint a picture of the ideal human being, one whose greatness of character and deed fails to draw him into the pitfall of pride and vanity.

The value of the trait of humility has gone by the wayside in modern society. Boastfulness seems to have risen to the top list of admired qualities, whether based on actual accomplishment or on frivolous nothings. In fact, boastfulness appears to have acquired a value all of its own, unwed from even a hint of justifying elements that would at least on the surface warrant such posturing.

The most obvious manifestation of this phenomenon is that we live in an age in which our heroes and role models are more than ever members of the entertainment industry, that is musicians, actors, athletes. It is of course the advent of the communications revolution (from the days of radio to the iPhone of today) that has empowered this development.

Part and parcel of the pop singer’s resume is to engage in all kind of empty bravado in front of the camera, whose message is essentially, “look at me, at how cool I am, how sexy, how rich, how tough, how good looking my partner is . . .” Our kids grow up on these images and quite naturally take them in and emulate. Can we look to any other age in the history of humanity in which what are essentially entertainers have taken on such a role in society? I think we have gone a little bit mad I fear.

Today, at least in the western world, the role actor playing hero receives by far more adulation than the heroes themselves. Boy singers, a la Justin Bieber (who may or may not be at all involved in the creative process), engage in and sell the most boastful and self-satisfied facial expressions to the delight of young audiences and music producers. It has now become a rite of passage of sorts for young female singer-performers to highlight their transition into womanhood by showing how sexually liberated and desirable they are, with each such made-for-public-consumption transition outdoing the previous one (a la Miley Cyrus).

When God charges Moses with the role of leader, prophet and liberator of the Jewish people, Moses responds:

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt? . . . Please, my Lord, I am not a man of words, not since yesterday, nor since the day before yesterday, nor since You first spoke to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech. . . .  Please, my Lord, send through whomever You will send!”

In today’s world, Moses may have been sacked for not asserting how right he is for the role and expressing his unbridled confidence in success. Expressing self-doubt does not fit in well with the bravado required by modern society as part and parcel of proving how suitable we are for a given task. I mean, come on Moses, what a turn off!!

I dated a girl (or woman if you will) recently. I am not sure whether we were right for each other, but she ended it after our fourth date. While explaining why, she expressed that women like a guy with confidence and proceeded to provide an example of my lack thereof. During our first date I naturally told her a little about my life. She found my life story to be quite unique and exciting, and said I should write a book about it. I answered (and I stand by my answer) that while my life story thus far may be unique, it does not warrant me writing and publishing a book about it.

In her mind my “humble” reaction was a turn-off and indicative of my lack of confidence. I would have served myself much better if I had instead boasted how book-worthy my life actually is. Now, I am the first to admit that I do have some confidence issues, but is this the true measure of confidence? I provide this anecdote as an illustration of how empty boasting has become a positive quality in too many minds, especially young minds. In this instance, an empty and dishonest boast would have been interpreted as an indication of actual (not counterfeit) confidence.

I want to make clear that I do not refer in this article the trait of humility in the sense of not recognizing one’s own true worth. I also do not refer to false, fake humility, which in fact reveals pride (“look everyone at how wonderfully humble I am!”). I refer to a self-aware humility, one that finds its rightful place among other desirable and worthy character traits such as kindness, courage, intelligence, perseverance and wisdom.

You might say, come on, let’s get real. Pride and boastfulness has been present and glorified since the dawn of humanity. Pharaoh himself illustrates the presence of this phenomenon in the ancient world. This is of course true, but have we witnessed a permutation of this phenomenon, of this human frailty we call pride and arrogance, in anywhere the same scale we witness it today? I don’t think so.

So what is different in our age from previous ages?  I return to the theme of the communications revolution. It is the communications revolution that has led us to the place where people have the ability to listen to any song, watch any video, see any movie at any place and at any time.  Long gone are the days where if you wanted to hear music, you needed to listen to a real live person perform it. Long gone are the days in which you needed to sit in front a troupe of actors in order to see anything resembling the movie of today. Yet, for the overwhelming part of history, that was exactly the situation. It is astonishing how much our lives have been changed by technology and how we tend to forget and take it for granted.

The communications revolution has been coupled by new and numerous ways to make money, the entertainment industry being chief among them. The proliferation of the perception of boastfulness as a desirable character trait has been, as I see it, brought about by the images inundating our minds (and especially those of young people) created by the entertainment industry – whether through music, film, sports or other mediums.

Who is at the driving wheel? Who is pushing this agenda of unintended, unplanned consequences? We have a sad and absurd situation today in which the good old drive for profit is driving and defining our culture, and especially that of our young people. When a record label decides to sign up an artist, they are not judging the quality of the music or performer in a pure artistic sense, they are making decisions simply and solely on WHAT WILL SELL. The influence it may have on young impressionable minds is not relevant, the dollar signs are.

As a parent, would you bring home a Britney Spears to your 10-year old daughter, have her dress, behave and perform in front of her as she does on TV, and encourage your daughter to emulate her as she would a role model? (Not to come down too hard on Britney, she is also a victim of the culture). Yet men who could not care less about your daughter have done exactly that purely for the sake of profit and nothing else. We take it for granted, like we take the force of gravity for granted, as if it is the natural way of the world.

The pure drive for profit, unguided and unbound by moral consideration, has taken us blindly down a path which has led young generations to buy into superficiality, admire fake heroes over actual heroes, and yes, prideful boastfulness over humility. The modern generations’ obsession with celebrity and fame for its own sake is indicative of this process.  It has happened drip by drip and gotten worse with time.

Have I come out of left field on this one? I am not sure, it is a hypothesis after all. But perhaps I am onto something here.

About the Author
Ran Zev Schijanovich was born in Israel in 1970 to an Argentinian father and American mother, lived in Argentina through age 11, and then moved to New York. He made aliyah in 2005 and served as a combat soldier in Golani from the ages of 36 to 38. Ran is graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.