In my own mind, I connect the decline of humility as an admirable trait with Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali) when he shouted, “I am the greatest!” Until that moment, my sports heroes had always effaced a modesty that was certainly practiced, if not feigned, but expected as a mark of professionalism. Clay’s boast, however, seemed to ripple not just through sports, but the entire American culture.
It is questionable to try to pinpoint the source of a popular attitude change so precisely, and this is only my remembered perception. But from that moment, the rise of unwarranted self-regard seemed more apparent, even clamorous.
While Clay had some justification for his bragging, such real-world justification soon became optional. The birth of the self-esteem (or “selfish steam”) movement marked the relegation of humility to the closet of quaintness.
The Path To Bluster. Looking back, it seems fair to say this was a Baby Boomer affectation. Many of our older relatives, whose conduct in war earned medals, seldom spoke about their heroism. Any hint of braggadocio was a social embarrassment.
The older farmers I knew when younger were uniformly modest, even if widely known as remarkable hay hands, mechanics or cattle judges. This humility was neither meekness nor timidity, but rather a sensible belief that among those around us, boasting was either redundant or contradictory. With the onset of technology that records an increasing proportion of our lives, easy fact-checking should make us wary of self-promotion. It hasn’t.
Somehow, the now-disproven theory of confidence-building through self-administered praise became the norm. At the extreme, it required rules about dancing in end zones, procedures to deflate inflated resume claims and lists of topics to avoid in conversations with serial egotists.
If for no other reason than Stein’s Law (“A trend will continue until it can’t.”) and the whims of popular culture, a change might be in the wind. The boring “Age of Self-Regard” might usher in the re-emergence of refreshing and rewarding humility.
Relentless claims to superiority are tiresome and, which is worse, time-wasting. When keeping informed is crucial to commercial and social success, time squandered on spewing or enduring claims of greatness produces no payback, builds no relationship, nor adds to our happiness. This has taken a while to sink in, but it is now painfully clear.
Agriculture came late to this behavioral trend, as usual, and we appear to be reluctant to leave. Our obsession with ourselves might still be peaking. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, we not only think and speak often of our superlative skills and importance, but are increasingly irritated when the world does not respond with lavish praise and agreement.
In contrast, we can witness around us the considerable payback of humility. People I admire for their modesty, even while possessing considerable skills and accomplishments, waste no time walking back fatuous claims, patching trampled friendships and devising excuses for failure. Transactions of all kinds are uncomplicated when those people are involved.
In the past few years they are also sought out, their strength of character magnified by modesty, and uplifting to neighbors. They are easy to be around, which is no small feat these days.
Change In Attitude. I suspect, but can’t prove, this attitude change is more pervasive than we think, simply because it is by nature a quiet campaign. It also seems to be more associated with women, as they overtake louder males in educational accomplishment and ability to work in groups.
Most of all, the rediscovery of humility offers a respite for weary spirits from a competition of self-adoration. It rests in an awful truth we have forgotten, best expressed in Churchill’s comment about the admirable humility of political rival Clement Atlee, “A modest man with much to be modest about.”
John Phipps, a farmer from Chrisman, Ill., is the on-farm “U.S. Farm Report” commentator and writes a column for Farm Journal.