LESSONS IN HUMILITY: An Essay by LVO Publisher Peter Bennett

December 14, 2011
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Since football is America’s new pastime, I can’t resist telling this story:

Frank Szymanski, a Notre Dame center in the 1940s, was called as a witness in a civil case. He answered a series of questions.

“Son, are you on the Notre Dame football team this year?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“What position?”

“Center, your honor.”

“How good a center are you?”

Szymanski squirmed in his seat, but said firmly, “Sir, I’m the best center Notre Dame has ever had.”

His admission stunned Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy, who was in the courtroom. His player had always been modest and unassuming. So when the proceedings were over, he pulled Szymanski aside and asked why he had made such a statement.

Szymanski blushed. “I hated to do it, coach, but I was under oath.”

Szymanski had humility. Had Szymanski not been under oath, I’m sure his coach would have never heard his boast.

Humility has always been a key part of the American character, going back to our nation’s roots.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, some of Washington’s officers suggested that the Continental Army take over the country and make him the first King of America. Washington flatly rejected the offer, resigned his commission and rode off to his home in Mount Vernon. The notion that anyone could refuse such power shocked Britain’s King George III. “If this is true,” the king said, “then he is the greatest man of the age.”

There have been many great humble Americans in more recent times, too, such as Norman Shumway and Bruce Reitz, who performed the first successful heart lung transplant in 1981. On Shumway’s memorial website, a nurse recalled how the famed surgeon had “brought in a lawn chair and stayed there with me until morning” to monitor four pediatric heart patients. “I had no clue who he was,” she added, “and I did not care because he clearly cared about those kids and about me.”

Then there’s the equally obscure Maurice Hilleman. In his life, he and his team created more than 40 human and animal vaccines credited with saving millions of lives, including those stricken with measles, mumps, rubella, Haemophilus influenzae type b, hepatitis A, hepatitis B and chickenpox. He was the 20th Century’s answer to Louis Pasteur! How did he regard his staggering achievement? “Looking back on one’s life,” he recalled, “you say, ‘Gee, what have I done? Have I done enough for the world to justify having been here?’ That’s a big worry — to people from Montana, at least.”

Hilleman was a scientist in the best Newtonian tradition. Sir Isaac Newton saw his contributions in math, mechanics, motion, optics and gravity pale compared to what remained to be learned. Talking to a visitor shortly before he death, he said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of Truth lay all undiscovered by me.”

Lately, or not so lately, America has begun to lose its humbleness. We celebrate people for simply being famous. Instead of celebrating humility, we celebrate humiliation. (Jon and Kate, Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, the Kardashians, the Jersey Shore cast, the list grows far too long and more obnoxious daily.) Like Narcissus, the handsome Greek youth who fell in love with his own image in a pool of water, many of our made-for-TV “leaders” lead only when there is a pool of paparazzi gathered to reflect their sound bites.

So, thank God, for people like Ken Burns, America’s documentary filmmaker extraordinaire, who has produced films like the The Civil War, and Prohibition, and other subjects still raw in the American psyche. It’s no mystery, of course, the series is on PBS, and that Burns doesn’t brook America’s low historical IQ very well. Not long ago, Burns wrote: “Nothing could be more dangerous to our future than this arrogance, brought on and amplified as it is by a complete lack of historical awareness among us, and further reinforced by a modern media, cloaked in democratic slogans, but dedicated to the most stultifying kind of consumer existence, convincing us to worship gods of commerce and money and selfish advancement above all else.”

Burns is great not because he stands in front of the camera, which seems to be America’s great obsession in the YouTube age, but because he stands behind it. He doesn’t say, “Look at me.” He says, “Look at this!”

But even if you make your living in front of the camera, you don’t have to be a self-promoting idiot. Daniel Radcliff, who rose to prominence playing the lead character in the wildly successful Harry Potter movies, said on CBS’ 60 Minutes in a 2011 interview that he much rather run home, put on his slippers, pour himself a bowl of fruit loops and watch the “History Channel” than walk on the red carpet.

Outstanding people don’t need the spotlight to shine. They would rather shine it on others. As Emerson said,” Most of the shadows of this life are caused by our standing in our own sunshine.”


God Was His Biggest Fan

Part of humility is being able to tell a good story about yourself, even if at the risk of revealing some of your faults. Here’s the story Mickey Mantle, the great Yankee slugger and night club-hopping bad boy of the 1950s and ‘60s, told on himself:

“St. Peter met me at the pearly gates to heaven and said, shaking his head, ‘Mick, we checked the record. We know what went on. Sorry, but we can’t let you in. But before you go, God wants to know if you could sign six dozen baseballs.’”

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” — C.S. Lewis

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