All four times I have taught Critical Thinking, a good percentage of my students have told me I'm the best teacher they've ever had. Recently I've been getting compliments on my writing. Some folks have also said positive things about the way that I treat Ariel, with whom I work 7 days a week for months on end. I work hard to treat her well, even when no one is watching, to be the kind of person I really want to be towards her--even though she'll forget what I say 30 seconds after I say it, and even though no one else witnesses most of what I do. I work hard in my classes, too, to reach beyond being the cool teacher into being the kind of human being I want to be. I work hard inside myself to have the kind of attitude towards others that I want to have, even when those others know nothing about it.
So then the other day I asked myself, why should I be humble? After all, I do a lot of things right. I genuinely try to have integrity and be an authentically loving person. I'm not just putting on an act. I do work hard on things that are worth working hard on.
Ariel's been increasingly mean and disrespectful in the last couple months and that's been hard for me. She's gotten everything she wanted for most of her life. She's been extraordinarily privileged, supported by men with money. She's never had to work for a living, and she's often been--well--mean towards others. Now, because she has a broken arm and is frail in general, sometimes we have to say no to her. And she does not handle it well.
So a few weeks ago when she was saying nasty things to me, because I had said no to her about something, I said to her, "Ariel, I cook your meals, I buy your food, I sit with you so that you don't fall, I do so much for you. It's just so disrespectful that you're treating me this way." And so she, ever one to pull an Ace, said to me, "You're so self-righteous."
So I went away and thought about that. Am I self-righteous? And I also thought, again, why should I be humble? I know that humility is a high virtue, and I know that whenever I encounter arrogance in others I'm disgusted, but the question I was asking myself was: upon what ought my humility to be grounded? In which geography inside my heart might I locate this particular virtue?
It seems to me that that kinds of questions I ask determine what answers I might receive--or at least they determine what I'll spend my time thinking about. ("If they get you asking the wrong questions, they won't have to worry about the answers." -Pynchon)
I hadn't thought all that much about what cause there might be for humility in me, perhaps because mostly in my life I've been tortured by pervasive self-criticism (to understate the case), so humility never seemed to be my issue. But in these last few years, I find myself become more and more the person I want to be (and also I can look back and see how I've been becoming that person, in many ways, for years)....and that feels very good. It feels good not to be so cruel to myself. It feels good to be patient with an old person who has repeated herself nine million times. Sometimes at the end of a long day with Ariel, when I've been patient, and responded with humor rather than falling on the floor from boredom, when I've gotten her into her nightgown and tucked her into bed, I do indeed go to my room and sink into my rocking chair and think, "I am awesome!"
(Actually, I can't ever recall doing that. But, well, it's the spirit of the thing.)
So--why be humble? I was worrying about this, because I felt like I was supposed to be humble, but I couldn't quite pin down what humility was about.
Then the answer came to me, via literature. For the last month I've been reading the new novel, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, a story set during the Holocaust. Many of the characters are German Nazis, some of them teenagers (what we'd now call child soldiers if they were in Africa--or just soldiers, if they were American troops), and some of them middle-aged men in low-management positions in the Nazi party. There's no ambiguity about what's right and wrong in the book....no complicating evil in order to make it seem less evil. And yet, neither does the author simplify any of the characters--even the ones I'd want to simplify--and make them pure evil.
I recommend the book. I won't explain it any further, but it's excellent....and it held my answer. The answer is that I cannot know for sure what I would do if I lived in Nazi Germany. Would I cower and only protect myself? Would I do whatever it took to live, even if it meant harming others, or leaving others in harm's way? Would I try to protect my Jewish neighbors, even if I knew there was good chance I'd get myself killed in the process?
The truth is that given fear, hunger, and sleeplessness-just those three things--I could become someone very different from who I am trying to be now. If someone held a gun to my head, I don't know what choices I'd make. If I were very hungry, I might climb over other people just to get to food. If someone offered me a million or a billion dollars to act cruelly, can I say for certain I wouldn't take the money.
And that, it seems to me, is the reason for me to be humble. Because my goodness is fragile and contingent. My very humanity, my whole life, is fragile and contingent.
Then, today, I was thinking: why is it that when I imagine myself in Nazi Germany, which I do a lot, because I grew up in Jerusalem where I was taught over and over that I must defend the Jews if they are ever threatened again.....when I imagine myself in Nazi Germany, I always imagine myself in the position of potential perpetrator. Why is that? Why do I never imagine myself in the position of victim? What if I did live in Nazi Germany, but I was a civilian girl in a small town in the eastern part of Germany, and my town was in invaded by the Russians and I was raped by Russian soldiers? Why do I never imagine myself in that role? Or the role of a Jewish woman with young children?
Perhaps it has to do with growing up as an American who, from the age of four, was aware of the power of her American-ness. I was aware, at least from the age of 8 or 9, of being from the country that is at the top, in terms of world affairs. Perhaps it has to do with growing up as part of the family who owns the largest commercial fishing operation in Alaska, and being the oldest child of the oldest son of that operation. My family was powerful, at least within the kingdom of our trade.
But I wasn't powerful, not as a child in Israel or Alaska, not as a young woman.
So today I've come up with a different answer to my own question. I want to be humble because humility connects me with others, and self-righteousness or arrogance or pride disconnects me from others. I need other people, I am dependent on other people, and this is a very good thing. And also, other people are dependent on me, and that is indeed a very humbling thing.