There is a profound distinction between humility and humiliation. The latter, a bad thing, occurs when someone undertakes the conscious effort to make you feel that you are unimportant, that your opinions are negligible, that your presence (in an organization, in a family, in the workplace, etc.) is unnecessary, perhaps even unwanted. The former, on the other hand, is a good thing: it is the realization that visits all of us occasionally that we are less powerful, less influential, and less essential to the smooth running of the universe than we all enjoy fantasizing in our more self-absorbed moments to be the case. The latter is something that is done to us by meanspirited others; the former is an emotion that wells up within our human breasts when we are forced, generally unexpectedly, to take stock of how things really are in the world and what our actual place in the greater scheme of things truly is. Neither experience is exceptionally pleasant, but we become embittered (if not enraged) through the one and wise through the other. In the end, they only sound alike…but aren’t really very similar at all.
Humility is something worth cultivating. We all know that sometimes medicine, including life-saving medicine, has a bitter taste to it…but the wise swallow it down anyway, preferring long-term gain over the momentary avoidance of a bad taste in their mouths. But how exactly to cultivate the kind of humility that ennobles and makes us into finer people…and that specifically cannot just be swallowed down in pill-form—that is the question.
Like all of you, I’ve been watching the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 as it has dragged on over these last weeks with some strange combination of curiosity, dismay, and apprehension. I have been on big airplanes more times than I can count. I’ve flown over the Atlantic dozens of times. I don’t love flying particularly, but I think that has to do more with my dislike of confined spaces than with any actual fear that the flight might end in disaster. And I speak in that regard as someone who actually has been in an airplane accident, although a minor one that hardly bears referencing as such. Still, I have left an aircraft at least once by sliding down the rubberized emergency-door chutes and been told by the crew to run away from the aircraft as quickly as possible, presumably to avoid incineration if the plane were to blow up. Perhaps I’ll write to you about that whole experience some other time—it was the same day in 1979, by the way, that (albeit hours later) I met Joan—but here my point is that I’m the guy who tells himself over and over that air travel is safe, that the dangerous part of the journey (at least in terms of the odds of coming to harm in an accident) is the drive to the airport not the flight to wherever you’re going, that year in and year out more people die on motorcycles than in airplanes. Many more!
Layered over those reassuring statistics is the sense of the world as being wholly wired, as privacy (not publicity) being the elusive thing in a modern society obsessed with surveillance. We’ve gotten used to security cameras in public places. We’ve adjusted to the government’s newly-exposed hobby of monitoring citizens’ phone calls, e-mails, and internet site visits. (This is not at all the same thing as approving of it or worrying about the constitutionality of the NSA programs revealed by Edward Snowden last year. That is another issue entirely…but what surprises me far more than the existence of those programs is the docility, bordering on passivity, of the citizenry in their regard now that their existence is common knowledge. I’ll write more about that another time as well.) We could debate some of the above, but the basic sense we all have is that we should always be smiling because we're always on camera.
And now both those assumptions meet in the story of MH 370. Vast stretches of the world’s oceans, it turns out, are unmonitored, including not by radar, satellite surveillance, or the vigilant gaze of the world’s air traffic controllers. That the Indian Ocean is vast I already knew. That the southern part of the Indian Ocean, the part due west of Australia, is an endless, uncharted sea over which no one watches too carefully…I also knew, at least theoretically. (That is to say, if anyone had asked me…I would have guessed correctly.) That an airplane, large and mighty-looking on the tarmac, could prove either unfindable or almost unfindable in the context of the vast, raging sea…and all the more so if it were not somehow visible as flotsam on the water’s surface but resting, either intact or in pieces, on the ocean floor wholly invisibly—that I would have said I knew as well. So I must be a very smart person because I knew all of those things! And yet…when the story of MH 370 became front-page news almost a month ago, I was amazed, joining the whole world in asking bewilderedly how this possibly could have happened.
I felt the same way after 9/11, at least after the initial shock of what had happened wore off. My questions were, if not identical, then similar. How could this possibly have happened? Don’t we have people in place charged with preventing terrorism, with protecting our nation’s cities, with watching over our coast line precisely so as to make impossible the kind of attacks we sustained on that terrible day? Isn’t that what the Coast Guard does, guard our coasts and prevent attacks on our coastal cities? I’m sure we all felt that way…but the correct response to 9/11 was not to despair of repairing the breaches in our defenses any more than the proper response to MH 370 is to give up hope of feeling safe on airplanes ever again. Neither of those responses would be productive or useful…and yet, in addition to working to prevent future attacks and future airplane crashes in the under-surveilled reaches of the world’s oceans, it would be meaningful for us to feel—in addition to all the other emotions vying for primacy of place within us as we contemplate events like these—it would be productive for us to feel humbled by our own vulnerability. Not acquiescent in the sense that we decide no longer even to bother to attempt to make safe the world and its people…but newly, even if painfully, aware of how inadequately we can predict the future, how wholly unable we are to leave no stone unturned when attempting to provide security in an insecure world for ourselves and our children, how much at the mercy of happenstance we invariably are, and how poor we are at anticipating the deeds of wicked so as to be able always to head villains off at the pass and prevent their nefarious plans from coming to fruition.
What really happened to the airplane, who knows? I’ve heard all the same theories everybody has, including the ridiculous ones concerning aliens and black holes. Whether this was a man-made disaster or one that “just” happened…that will, I suppose, one day be known. Strangely, both possibilities seem both likely and unlikely. For what it’s worth, my own sense is that the ultimate answer lies in some sort of combination of those two options. In the meantime, and given how little we actually know, the only truly rational response is to wait for more information to surface before leaping to any conclusions. But, also in the meantime, it would behoove us all to grow from the larger experience by feeling not humiliated by the experience of not knowing what happened but humbled by it.
Many years ago, Alan Watts published a book called The Wisdom of Insecurity. Watts was a remarkable man. British by birth but eventually a Californian and one single year older than my own father, Watts started out as an Episcopal priest, then eventually abandoned Christianity for Zen Buddhism, regarding which he published many very interesting books, including his very well-known The Way of Zen. I read that book in college and many others of his books while in rabbinical school, but The Wisdom of Insecurity, first published in 1951, is the one that has stayed with me the most meaningfully over all these years and I still recommend it regularly to others. It isn’t a long book—a mere 150 pages in length—but it can be read as a profound recommendation that insecurity—and particularly of the unsettling variety that settles upon us when we contemplate unexplained disasters exactly like the missing airplane—is, in and of itself, not a bad thing if it shakes us free of our general arrogance regarding the world and instills a kind of humility in us that we might otherwise find it difficult to cultivate. Indeed, even as we mourn the loss of so many innocents, we should be able to grow from the experience of contemplating their fate by learning something deep and meaningful about the world.
The idea should be familiar to students of the Bible, and particularly to students of the Psalms. How many of our ancient poets, after all, write about themselves as being ill—even sick unto death, some of them—and yet who seem to have found in their own vulnerability and lack of security regarding their own prospects to heal and become well not a justification for rage or sour disappointment, but a foundation for seeking solace in faith and comfort from confronting the fragility of the human condition head-on? These psalms are more or less entirely absent from our liturgical calendar for some reason—the only people who read, say, the twenty-second psalm or the eighty-eighth are people who study the Psalter or who turn to its poetry for succor or consolation—and yet, it is in precisely those poems that is to be found the wellsprings of humility that transform insecurity from a dam in the face of faith into, paradoxically, a wellspring of security regarding the goodness of the world and its Creator. For readers unfamiliar with the chapters of the Psalter that do not appear in any prayerbook, encountering them for the first time will be a rare treat: these are the words of ancients who faced the same wrenching insecurity about the world and about their places in it that we know all too well from modern life, yet who grew profitably from their own inability to predict the future, to know their own destinies, to understand why and how things, including very bad things, happen from time to time to people who do not even remotely deserve to suffer their consequences. One could profitably read the 103rd psalm in that regard as well.
It is, to say the least, bracing to read these psalms, as it is to encounter The Wisdom of Insecurity for the first time. As we wait to learn more about that unfortunate flight and its poor passengers, the challenge is not to rage against the unknowing but to harness the story and its larger implications…and to allow it and them to make us neither terrified nor enraged, but humbled in the face of yet more evidence that we cannot control the world, and certainly not to the extent any of us would naturally want. These are dour lessons that no one particularly wants to learn. But, just as is the case with bitter but life-saving medicine, sometimes the wisdom lives more in the swallowing than in the savoring.