Humility and Seeing the Bigger Picture

Michael Matt at The Remnant, relieved at the results of the US presidential election, writes:

If Mrs. Clinton had achieved victory last night, today would seem the darkest in history. The future would be beyond dire for a people that willingly raised up a corrupt and immoral radical, who hates the laws of God, defends the murder of babies, and zealously works for the destruction of the family.

Had she been elected it would have said much more about us than about her. We would’ve exposed ourselves as a soulless and heartless people, beyond hope and beneath contempt.

There was so much at stake. Much of our work here at The Remnant, for example, would have been criminalized over the next four years. Our homeschools were to become illegal enterprises in the village Mrs. Clinton had in mind. Even our ability to move about freely would have been undermined by Mrs. Clinton who had promised to expand the ‘no fly’ list against “haters”. (As the “leader of a hate group”, according to the infamous Southern Poverty Law Center, it isn’t difficult for this writer to imagine how enthusiastically President Hillary would have enforced hate crime legislation against Christian America.)

On the other side, Scott Aaronson says:

It’s become depressingly clear the last few days that even many American liberals don’t understand the magnitude of what’s happened.  Maybe those well-meaning liberals simply have more faith than I do in our nation’s institutions, despite the recent overwhelming evidence to the contrary (if the institutions couldn’t stop a Trump presidency, then what can they stop?).  Maybe they think all Republicans are as bad as Trump, or even that Trump is preferable to a generic Republican.  Or maybe my liberal friends are so obsessed by the comparatively petty rivalries between the far left and the center left—between Sanders and Clinton, or between social-justice types and Silicon Valley nerds—that they’ve lost sight of the only part of this story that anyone will care about a hundred years from now: namely, the delivering of the United States into the hands of a vengeful lunatic and his sycophants.

I was sickened to read Hillary’s concession speech—a speech that can only possibly mean she never meant what she said before, about how “a man you can bait with a tweet must never be trusted with nuclear weapons”—and then to watch President Obama holding a lovey-dovey press conference with Trump in the White House.  President Obama is a wiser man than I am, and I’m sure he had excellent utilitarian reasons to do what he did (like trying to salvage parts of the Affordable Care Act).  But still, I couldn’t help but imagine the speech I would’ve given, had I been in Obama’s shoes:

“Trump, and the movement he represents, never accepted me as a legitimate president, even though I won two elections by a much greater margin than he did.  Now, like the petulant child he is, he demands that we accept him as a legitimate president.  To which I say: very well.  I urge my supporters to obey the law, and to eschew violence.  But for God’s sake: protest this puny autocrat in the streets, refuse any cooperation with his administration, block his judicial appointments, and try every legal avenue to get him impeached.  Demonstrate to the rest of the world and to history that there’s a large part of the United States that remained loyal to the nation’s founding principles, and that never accepted this vindictive charlatan.  You can have the White House, Mr. Trump, but you will never have the sanction or support of the Union—only of the Confederacy.”

Robin Hanson, in contrast with both of the above statements, tries to calm people down about all this:

Many seem to think the apocalypse is upon us – I hear oh so much much wailing and gnashing of teeth. But if you compare the policies, attitudes, and life histories of the US as it will be under Trump, to how they would have been under Clinton, that difference is very likely much smaller than the variation in such things around the world today, and also the variation within the US so far across its history. And all three of these differences are small compared the variation in such things across the history of human-like creatures so far, and also compared to that history yet to come.

That is, there are much bigger issues at play, if only you will stand back to see them. Now you might claim that pushing on the Trump vs. Clinton divide is your best way to push for the future outcomes you prefer within that larger future variation yet to come. And that might even be true. But if you haven’t actually thought about the variation yet to come and what might push on it, your claim sure sounds like wishful thinking. You want this thing that you feel so emotionally invested in at the moment to be the thing that matters most for the long run. But wishes don’t make horses.

Robin has the better attitude here, and provides a good illustration of a topic that I was planning to discuss at some point, namely the need for recognizing the bigger picture in order to exercise the virtue of humility.

In the linked post, I remarked on St. Therese’s identification of humility with truth, and pointed in particular to the truth that we are neither the first cause nor the ultimate end. But this is just to locate ourselves in reality in a vague way, and the truth is much more detailed than this. A more distinct way to think about this would be that the error of pride consists in thinking that the partial view that we have is the whole truth, while humility would consist in recognizing that there is a bigger picture.

A proud person is often said to believe that the “world revolves around him,” and similar things. But consider: this is not such a strange view. Look around, and it does indeed look like the world is all around you. And the causes of pride are in fact very similar to this, and in that sense, not so unnatural. In this case, if someone were actually to believe it, the error is clear: the person takes his partial view as the full truth about the world, while in reality, his view is extremely limited, and only reaches to certain aspects of the world.

This account applies to virtually every case in which a person behaves proudly. For example when someone stubbornly insists on his own ideas, when he is mistaken, or when he is right, but in a way that is dismissive of others, we rightly identify this as pride, precisely because the person refuses to accept that there is more to reality than he sees himself.

Likewise, if a person is stubbornly attached to his own good, the mistake consists in believing that the only thing that is important is his own desires, while in reality this is only a small part of what is important.

Someone might object: how can humility be about seeing the big picture? Humility seems to be about being small and unimportant, so it seems the opposite of anything big.

The answer to this is that the objection is no different from noticing that the person going about claiming, “I am a humble person!” is most likely not the most humble of people. Humility consists in seeing the bigger picture, but a humble person is not in general the one who is most likely to go about claiming to see the bigger picture. We might ask why not. In particular, if humility is truth, as St. Therese says, then why should a humble person not say that he is humble, since it is the truth? And likewise, if you see the bigger picture, why should you not admit it, since it is the truth?

This is really a question of the right behavior in particular circumstances, and there is no definitive answer for all cases. Sometimes a humble person should indeed say they are humble, as St. Therese did in fact say of herself, although she put it somewhat delicately. But the danger here is twofold: first, if you see a bigger picture than someone else, you might identify your picture as the whole and his as the part, and thus you fall into the error of pride, because your picture remains partial, even if it is larger. Second, your view of the other person’s picture is itself partial, and you will again fall into the error of pride if you assume that you fully see his picture.

Humility tends to a make a person calm, basically for the reason suggested by Robin Hanson, namely by relativizing the importance of the person’s immediate concerns as a small part of the greater whole. And if you agree that the world at its heart is neither evil nor indifferent, but rather the world is rooted in goodness itself, then humility will also make you happy, because you will be looking at the whole and seeing that it is very good.

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One thought on “Humility and Seeing the Bigger Picture

  1. Those are beautiful thoughts. I read something else on humility today from St. Elizabeth of the Trinity and it seems to me much like what you have said: “…It resigns itself to the will of God, and in self-abnegation, finds true, invincible, and perfect peace, which nothing can disturb. For it has plunged into such a deep abyss than no one will seek it there. If anyone should affirm to me that to find the bottom of the abyss is to be immersed in humility, I would not contradict him. However, it seems to me that to be plunged into humility is to be plunged into God, for God is the bottom of the abyss. That is why humility, like charity, is always capable of increasing. Since a humble heart is the vessel needed, the vessel capable of containing the grace God wants to pour into it, let us be humble….”

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