Lessons in Humility (Part One)

I was going to name this article “Disaster, Part One” but on careful, that is, embarrassed consideration, I decided that I should rename.

After all, there’s nothing like disaster to make us humans feel humble, even when we should be feeling humiliated, or at least chagrined — as I hope to make clearer in parts two and three — disasters that are not our fault and those that are.

To begin with, humility and humiliation are very different. Humility is mostly good. Humiliation is mostly bad, because even if you’re not on the receiving end, but are trying to inflict humiliation on someone else, it’s only too likely that the someone else will try hard to get back at you.

Disasters that inflict humility (and/or humiliation) upon us come with many labels. You may even have noticed that there are many disasters caused by human stupidity, greed, arrogance, and assorted more insidious psychological quirks.

Of course, not all the psychologically-caused disasters are as memorable as some. Many wars are memorable and were induced by or pushed ahead by human stupidity, greed, etc. But there are plenty of disasters, subtle or even incipient, that are not exactly wars. I think one of the greatest disasters is willful or unconscious ignorance.

I may be referring, obliquely of course, to certain remarks and actions stemming from ignorance within the Senate and the House of Representatives. There are also what I think of as the ravening packs of various other human groups afflicted by stupidity, greed, etc.

I avoid naming political parties and business organizations and others. The point is that various disasters do not precisely (and I speak precisely) involve bombs, guns, and assorted other ways of killing people. You can kill lots of things about people beside their lives.

Even people who mean well (and would never shoot anyone or even slap them down) sometimes have trouble averting disaster caused by their own unexamined emotions. I used to be a psychiatrist but I’m not thinking of individual patients, mine or anyone else’s. There are organizations that I subscribe to, contribute to, and that mean exceedingly well, but which I sometimes suspect are not thinking through the general effect of their efforts.

For instance — now that I have your attention — we humanists tend to feel frustrated and revengeful when some fundamentalist is particularly nasty about trying to humiliate us. It doesn’t pay to return the favor. It doesn’t work, either, as I have found out with my more fundamentalist relatives.

Fundamentalists not only seem short on the humility that should come with the nicer aspects of various religious beliefs but are also impervious to the humiliation they ought to feel when we point out how ridiculous their theology is. The belief in “truths” that come directly from a superior being is one that really dies hard.

Part of the imperviousness is simple psychological denial, but even when the disasters soon to be discussed in parts two and three are mentioned, many otherwise admirable people simply do not want to hear. Many even say so.

Think of how long it took for humanity (some of it, anyway) to move beyond the disaster of ignorance. If you don’t think ignorance is a disaster, you don’t know human history. Think of the privies built above the drinking supply, even after the germ theory of disease was known. The examples are too many and too depressing to enumerate. I’m sure you know plenty.

So let’s not be too angry and pushy about ignorance. Patience is necessary for unpleasant facts to get across, because there are so many things that interfere with the absorption and acceptance of same (like “God did not save/punish you” or even “there are too many people for this water supply”).

Remember that tribal mentality rules in most places and can even affect terribly civilized people. In recent decades, tribal mentality, beefed up by rage and revenge, has killed almost as many people as the automobile.

Remember also that there are zillions of happy, cheerful, uplifting but dangerous folk legends that people love and were probably raised on. We adults laugh when Terry Pratchett turns Santa Claus into “The Hogfather,” complete with a sled drawn by flying hogs, but if you read the novels about the same, the problem can be deadly serious.

Folk legends, especially those at the basis of some of the more formidable religions, should be taught as legends, I suppose, but how do you get that across to a two-year-old?

Some people outgrow the tribal, fictional things underlying ordinary ignorance, but all too many people—no matter how humiliated or how threatened—will not give them up. Comfort, hope, glory, whatever—seem more important than truth.

So have pity. Truth is hard to get at and harder to accept. We humanists, we’d like to think, accept truth, but it’s very hard to explain to a person beset with umpteen problems that it’s no use praying, because it might be of some use, if only as mindful meditation that may reset the person’s autonomic nervous system and make it possible for him or her to think out reasonable solutions.

It’s of no use to grab a fundamentalist and try to put across the ridiculousness of much theology, as in, “Don’t you realize that if there were a god, she’d probably be too busy way out yonder playing with exploding suns to bother with the likes of us?”

There’s another ploy, one which makes a lot of humanists smile but often feel better even though we don’t believe it because there’s no evidence. Modifying a couple of old-time philosophers, we could smile sweetly at fundamentalists and say,

“Maybe the entire multiverse is growing into godhood because sentient beings are part of it, helping it become aware of itself, perhaps, eventually, thinking and choosing.”

In our humanist attempts to cope with human stupidity, greed, arrogance and above all ignorance, let us choose wisely.