By NANCY GIBBS Monday, Nov. 09, 2009
Virtues, like viruses, have their seasons of contagion. When catastrophe strikes, generosity spikes like a fever. Courage spreads in the face of tyranny. But some virtues go dormant for generations, as we've seen with thrift, making its comeback after 40 years in cold storage. I'm hoping for a sudden outbreak of modesty, a virtue whose time has surely come.
You can understand why this one went out of style. It was too often twisted into a demand — that a lady demurely contain herself, not make a spectacle, do nothing that makes a man feel like anything but a king. At least in Western cultures, that attitude did not survive the '70s and all the exuberant liberations attending. By the time the Reagan era dawned and a new Gilded Age beckoned, women were invited to swagger as much as they liked. For men and women, a global economy meant survival of the fittest, which did not involve playing down one's skills and gifts and certainties.
So self-aggrandizement became both fashionable and fashion, especially for girls, with everything dropping by inches — necklines and waistlines but not hemlines, which climbed upward until a skirt became little more than a strap. Professional athletes flaunted their immodesty, egos on steroids bashing at the plate and dancing in the end zones; where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, whose name was synonymous with greatness and grace? Developers etched their names into their towers in letters 6 ft. high; financiers built cottages the size of cathedrals. Politicians talked louder but did less, or declared Missions Accomplished that had barely begun.
Even technology conspired to inflate us. Modesty's power was mystery, its flirty allure, its clandestine strength, what lies hidden and unknown and requires patient excavation or intimacy hard-earned. We are not billboards; we are secrets and codes, except that the modern age of constant communication, each tweet and text, makes secrecy all but impossible and intimacy indiscriminate.
So in the face of all that deterrence, how is modesty to survive? First, let's strip gender out of it; use it more interchangeably with humility. Modesty means admitting the possibility of error, subsuming the self for the good of the whole, remaining open to surprise and the gifts that only failure can bring. There are many ways to practice it. Try taking up golf. Or making your own bagels. Or raising a teenager.
Modesty in private life is attractive, but in public life it is essential, especially now, when those who immodestly claimed to Know It All have Wiped Us Out. The problems we face are too fierce to accommodate arrogance. Humility leaves room for complexity, honors honest dissent, welcomes the outlandish idea that sweeps past ideology and feeds invention. We want to reimagine the health-care system, confront climate change, save our kids from a financial avalanche? The odds are much better if we come to the table assuming we don't already have all the answers.
I suspect that Barack Obama works at projecting that aura of postpartisan open-mindedness because he understands its political value. There's the chance his opponents will have a good idea; there's the certainty that independent voters will give him points for listening. And there's the need for inoculation against the charge that he is all sizzle, no steak, a need he admitted when he mocked himself at last year's Al Smith dinner. "If I had to name my greatest strength, I guess it would be my humility," he said. "Greatest weakness, it's possible that I'm a little too awesome."
Humility and modesty need not be weakness or servility; they can be marks of strength, the courage to confront a challenge knowing that the outcome is in doubt. Ronald Reagan, for all his cold-warrior confidence, projected a personal modesty that served his political agenda well. I still don't know what President Obama's core principles are, but the fact that he even pays lip service to humility as one of them could give him the upper hand in the war for the souls of independents — a group that's larger now than at any time in the past 70 years. He was aggressively modest acknowledging his inconvenient Nobel Peace Prize. He regularly makes fun of his ears.
But I heed Jane Austen's warning that "nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast." If Obama appears proud of how humble and open-minded he is, if he demonizes opponents instead of debating them, if his actual choices are quietly ideological while his rhetoric flamboyantly inclusive, he will be missing a great opportunity — and have much to be modest about.
Chautauqua's own, Nancy Gibbs!
Nancy Gibbs is the author of nearly 100 TIME cover stories, including four "Person of the Year" essays and dozens of stories on the 1998 impeachment fight and the 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns. She wrote TIME's September 11th memorial issue as well as weekly essays on the unfolding story and its impact on the nation. Ms. Gibbs's article "If You Want to Humble an Empire..." won the Luce Awards' 2002 Story of the Year and the Society of Professional Journalists' 2002 Sigma Delta Chi Magazine Writing Award.
Ms. Gibbs joined TIME in 1985, first in the International section. She then wrote feature stories for five years before joining the Nation section.
She graduated in 1982 from Yale, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and also earned a degree in politics and philosophy from Oxford University. In 1993 she was named Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University, where she taught a seminar on Politics and the Press. Her writing is included in the Princeton Anthology of Writing, edited by John McPhee and Carol Rigolot.