Friday, November 10, 2006

Friday Reflection: The Enduring Value of Humility

Before we get to the Friday Reflection, a few more notes on politics, in the wake of the Dems' sweep of Congress.

Now some of you who wander by fairly regularly may wonder why I seem to be such a cheerleader for Dr. Eric Alterman. Well, aside from the fact that he's smart as a bullwhip (or taser, to update the metaphor); is nearly always right and even prescient about fairly complex matters of politics and the media; is a terrific writer with a natural talent for elucidating often difficult material; and is rigorously honest and respectful with his audience, Alterman also has a great sense of humor and seems to be a genuinely humble person (try and find one of those in the mass media today, and take a strong lantern).

Now I've never met him (I've never gotten to meet any of my favorite writers), but I have evidence for the last claim. Wednesday evening, I wrote an email note into his blog at Media Matters, expecting it to be ignored. I was being kind of critical—I hope good-naturedly—of his pre- (and even post-) election pessimism, actually referring to him as "Mr. Sunshine." The whole text is here.

Well, as you can see, he published it. And strange to say, when I saw it, I instantly realized my own blind spot in the wake of this election, and I saw where Alterman was coming from in his post-election realism. When he talks about a continuing "political dysfunction," I think he is referring to the considerable likelihood of Congressional gridlock over the next two years, which of course could sour a lot of people who voted for these Democrats. It's a warning that Pelosi, Reid, and all those new committee chairpersons should keep keenly in mind as 2007 dawns. My hope is that they'll be rigorously mindful of the mandate they received, and the responsibility that goes with it, which includes exposing these neocon creeps for what they are and what they've done, even as they formulate a fresh agenda for progress. In other words, don't attack—just expose; and keep building while you do it. Truth almost never needs the help of force to make its presence felt. I'm pretty sure the Democrats understand this.

Still, it must be added, they haven't proved a blessed thing yet. Therefore, I must apologize to Eric, and I publicly retract that "Mr. Sunshine" thing. My only excuse is that I was carried away by my euphoria—it's been a long, dark six years, you know.


Now our banner quote for the week comes from one of those great books that no one ever reads anymore (I don't think I've even read the entire thing—my well-worn copy is an abridgement made for Penguin by Dero Saunders—click the graphic above to find a copy). The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon, is filled with stories, character profiles, and incisive analysis of people and events that make it a classic.

The system of imperial government...may be defined [as] an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth. The masters...surrounded their throne with darkness, concealed their irresistible strength, and humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the Senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed.

The "imperial government" that Gibbon was describing was the Augustan empire. It retained vestiges of the old representative system from the Republican era that preceded it—consuls, tribunes, and the Senate appeared to provide appropriate checks and balances on the princeps, the Emperor. Yet, as Gibbon revealed, the reality was a thinly-disguised despotism, in which the Emperor dictated legislation to the Senate and then executed it with an often oppressive rigor. If that doesn't remind you of what we've seen in America these past five or six years, then I would suggest that you haven't been paying attention.


Friday Reflection

Those of you familiar with some of my other work may be aware that I favor the old Chinese oracle, I Ching, for certain personal and interpersonal purposes. On Wednesday, I happened to cast Hexagram 63 of that book, which is titled "After Completion." Let's read a little of it, from a book about the I Ching written by a professor of constitutional law at Yale, Jack Balkin:

Ferrying complete
Mission accomplished
Everything in its place
After fording the stream
After fulfillment
Consolidating gains
Maintaining equilibrium
Nipping problems in the bud
Preventing deterioration
Watching carefully
Minding the kettle

Ji Ji [the Chinese title of the hexagram] means 'already across the stream' or 'already forded.' Because crossing a river was considered a very arduous endeavor, the expression eventually took the more general meaning of having successfully completed a task or undertaking.

The structure of the hexagram symbolizes that everything has been put in proper order...However, the problem with the situation is its very state of perfection...Special efforts have to be made to keep the situation from deteriorating.

It was, to me, an amazingly apt commentary on the outcome of this election (and the use of the phrase "Mission Accomplished" is downright eerie, and humorous as well).

Where I part company with Balkin's interpretation (which, by the way, is fairly common to most scholastic commentary on this hexagram) is over the point about success requiring "special efforts"—vigilance or manipulation—for it to endure.

My own feeling is that, for success to endure, all it needs is humility. Humility means not taking credit for good fortune; it means acknowledging success as a gift, not a reward—and certainly not a right. The Democrats will not lose a single glint of luster from their victory by remembering this.

Try to see your own life in this light—as a stream of gifts. Make a list of them if you wish; it only requires a certain tilting of consciousness, a change of attitude. But one thing is certain to me: pride and vigilance only tend to obstruct the flow of good fortune; they can easily reverse the tide of success.

See the gifts that live and move around you; look at circumstance the way the old Chinese horse farmer in Lieh Tzu's parable* did—seeing the opportunity in what others deem disaster; the success in what others see as failure; the blessing in what another might call a curse. While I will allow Eric Alterman his point that we are in a fairly dark period—politically, environmentally, and journalistically—it is also a moment bursting with potential, as we saw Tuesday night.

Is such a holistic view of success just a trick to make you settle for less than you might have by struggle and contention? It may depend in part on the value you place on what your culture tells you is important or valuable. But if you try that horse farmer's perspective on within yourself, you may discover that humility is not about self-abasement or abnegation. Humility is simply a clearer brand of realism. If you can feel this, and live it, then you have accomplished more than the most vaunted guru, the most revered spiritual teacher—and of course, far more than the merely wealthy or the vapidly famous.

But there is one lesson of Hexagram 63 that must be remembered: humility is a well that needs regular replenishment. The spring that feeds this well is not vigilance or pride, but the stream of quantum gravity that I call Love. This is the meaning, to me, of "after fulfillment...preventing deterioration." Humility doesn't repel success—it invites it to linger.

So what is the meaning of this to a politician? Perhaps Nancy Pelosi's experience on election night may serve as our guide here: her daugher is expecting a baby any day, and so when the phone rang Wednesday morning, Pelosi urgently asked the person who had picked up the call, "did we have our baby?"

The answer was mildly disappointing: it was only Bush, calling to congratulate her on her victory and her status as the first female speaker of the House of Representatives. If Ms. Pelosi can only keep those priorities in mind as she returns to Washington and prepares to undertake her new position there, she will never cower or retreat in the face of Bush and his cronies, and she will inspire confidence in those of us who voted for her, her party, and the hope for change that they represent to us.

We shall see.


*Lieh-Tzu: A Taoist Guide to Practical Living, Eva Wong, ed., Shambhala Dragon Editions, 2001, Ch. 96

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