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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 10/9/20



Happy Friday!

The motto of my high school, the Loara Saxons, was “Spirit, Pride, Humility.” When I graduated from high school I was asked to speak on this topic.

I’ve thought a lot about these words over the years. The easiest of these three attributes for a high school student to achieve is spirit—energy, excitement, optimism. Setting aside the social and dermatological insecurities of the teen years, having pride in one’s work and confidence in one’s capabilities, particularly with the support of caring parents, can be an easily learned trait.

Humility is another thing entirely. Whereas spirit and pride are attributes that go hand-in-hand with the youthful view of a world of possibilities and opportunities, humility requires us to acknowledge our limitations and our small role in the world. It takes strength of character to be humble.

 

OUR LEADERS AND THEIR DIFFICULT RELATIONSHIP WITH HUMILITY

I read a headline this week about Joe Biden making campaign stops in Arizona and Georgia, trying to expand the electoral map (and, presumably, the magnitude of the victory he believes is in his grasp). While I would never be one to suggest limiting a candidate’s exposure to his or her constituents, I noted that this decision bears an eerie parallel to a similar trip undertaken by Hillary Clinton four years ago.

Before Broadway shut down for the pandemic, Andrea, Lauren, and I attended Hillary and Clinton, a play about the supposed discussions between the Clintons in the days leading up to the election in 2016. In particular, it recalls Bill Clinton’s admonitions not to take the upper Midwest for granted.

The history of the last weeks of that campaign are instructive. Hillary’s lead in the polls was solid. She took off for a trip to Georgia and Arizona, historically Republican strongholds, in an effort to expand her mandate. Bill begged her instead to go to the Midwest. We know her choice and we know the result. Her ego pushed her to build on her victory—eking out a victory wasn’t enough. She ignored the advice of one of the greatest politicians of our lifetimes.

Bill was, of course, a victim of his own inability to make peace with humility. He seems one in a long line of our leaders who have a hard time acknowledging their failings—that they could have been wrong. It is an Achilles heel that has cost many of them dearly. Could Clinton’s impeachment have been avoided if he simply had fessed up to his behaviors? Could Nixon have avoided a forced resignation if he had not been intoxicated with the power of the presidency and instead have acknowledged the “third rate burglary”? For that matter, what if Lyndon Johnson had accepted his advisors’ conclusion regarding the stalemate in Vietnam, with no clear path to victory? Instead, his unwillingness to acknowledge his prior mistaken policy caused him to proceed forward with ever-expanding troop deployments and unraveling of his reelection chances. And what if George W. Bush had paused, reviewed the facts on the ground, and limited his broader vision for Iraq?

 

LACK OF HUMILITY WRIT LARGE

Humility is a trait that requires work. We are better people, indeed “bigger” people, when we acknowledge our limits. Being humble and accepting the limits of our own abilities is, in fact, a sign of maturity. To be humble is not to be filled with doubts or to be insecure. Rather, it leads to introspection and reconsideration. It leads to the acceptance of the possibility that we are wrong and it leads us to listen carefully to the advice of others—including those who may know more than we do or have more experience in a particular arena than do we.

Today, our country is being led by a man who can never seem to acknowledge that he is not always a “winner” and that he is subject to the constraints of the Constitution, propriety, tradition, and decorum. He has famously and repeatedly alleged he is smarter and more knowledgeable than all his advisors—including those with years of study and experience in complex disciplines.

But the greatest of our leader’s many errors of hubris is his failure to accept that a devastating illness that has killed over 210,000 Americans and over 1,000,000 world-wide so far is bigger than he is. A greater man would acknowledge what has happened to him and speak to the American people from a position of temporary weakness and use his illness as instructive to the American people—particularly those who look to him for medical advice.

Initially, I thought Mr. Trump’s behaviors vis-à-vis Covid-19 was just another manifestation of his difficult relationship with the truth. But I now have concluded that he doesn’t believe he’s lying—he is instead so insecure that he lacks the humility to acknowledge his limits and the power of the disease. What else can explain:


• Repeated promises that the disease wasn’t as bad as advertised

• Constant attempts to place “blame” for the disease on the Chinese

• Regular and incorrect instructions to people on cures and therapies he prematurely endorses (and are unproven)

• Unwillingness to take necessary precautions and engage in provocative behaviors

• Badgering White House staff about their taking precautions and, in doing so, exposing them to risk

• Waiting before disclosing his diagnosis and instead participating in campaign events that expose staff, supporters and others

• Insisting on a “photo-op” drive-by that exposed Secret Service and others

• Alleging, against the received medical wisdom, that he “believes he is no longer contagious”


One of the lessons in the lack of humility is the inability to acknowledge errors and the inability to “course correct.” The more insecure one is, or the more one is wrong, the more one fights harder…

 

MY FIRST LESSONS IN HUMILITY

Back to high school. In my sophomore year, I received a harsh lesson in humility, our lack of control, and the fragility of life when my “locker partner” and friend, Edd Zelezny, died of lupus (at a time before the modern medical therapies that likely would have saved him). It is a hard lesson for a kid in high school. Shortly after graduation, another friend, Doug Suppa, died in a freak dune buggy accident. I still remember both of them vividly and fondly.

So what is the story about the graduation speech about our motto of “Spirit, Pride, Humility”? It turns out there was a committee of my classmates and faculty that chose three students, each to speak on one of these attributes. The girl who informed me of the decision said something to the effect of, “Of course, you’d be great to speak on spirit—you’ve got energy and school spirit in great supply.” She went on, “and no one can beat you for pride—you exude confidence.” [not so sure how I feel about that, because I had insecurities in abundance!]

“No,” she said, “We think you should speak about humility. No one would expect it from you and you could learn to have a little more of it.” I owe that committee a debt of gratitude. At that tender age, I was reminded—both by events and by my peers—the value of humility. These are lessons I carry with me to this day.

So here we are in a pandemic, suffering economic and social challenges, witnessing the earth’s reaction to our civilization’s over-exploitation of its resources, governed by the inept, the laughingstock of the world, with the highest rates of death in the developed world. Humbling indeed.

Warmly (and humbly),

Glenn

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