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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Dose of humility overcomes a world of hurt

LOS ANGELES — It is precisely during economic and political tension that more frequent and fervent expressions of sincere humility might serve to smooth over some tough spots. After all, being truly humble can serve to downsize egos that otherwise tend to mushroom minor molehills into major mountain ranges. Pure egomania may be the cause of as many crisis escalations as root causes.

This insight from St. Augustine more than 1,500 years ago: "Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues; hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance."

The thought applies with a viselike grip today to those who feel entitled to living their life out as royalty when so many people the world over are scraping to maintain a simple roof over their serf-like heads.

Example No. 1: Pervez Musharraf. As a Muslim, Pakistan's president isn't about to sink his teeth very deeply into St. Augustine. But he can look to the Quran for guidance on humility. Here is one thought (25:64): "The true servants of the Gracious God are those who walk on the earth humbly, and when the ignorant address them, they avoid them gracefully by saying, 'Peace!' "

This career military man seized the presidency in 1999 and doesn't want to give it back, no matter what anyone says, including the Pakistani people. Two main reasons lie behind this arrogance. One is that Musharraf believes his wisdom as president is essential to Pakistan's future. The second reason is that U.S. President George W. Bush believes that Musharraf's presidency is essential to America's future.

In fact, fewer and fewer Pakistanis agree with Bush; they want their president to go. This puts them at odds with the U.S., which once again appears in the position of propping up a strongman in a foreign country against the wishes of the people who live there.

Example No. 2: Lee Myung Bak. As a Presbyterian, the new president of South Korea can dip into the New Testament for thoughts on the humility issue. He urgently needs to review such teachings. Before taking office earlier this year, he was known in the private sector as "the bulldozer" for his "my-way-or-the-highway" approach.

But what gets by in the industrialized private sector — especially in the rough-and-tumble environment of a gigantic Korean chaebol — doesn't always fly in the public arena. Just months after his landslide victory, Mr. Bulldozer hit a brick wall.

South Koreans want policies explained, not rammed through; they want a humbler leader, not the second coming of an old-style dictator common to Korea before 1987.

Last week the streets in central Seoul were filled with Koreans protesting Lee's decision to resume imports of U.S. meat products. Their beef is that those American exports may not be safe enough to eat. The lifting of the Korean ban on such imports was part of a package deal called the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement. But now the U.S. Congress doesn't want to pass it, and the South Korean government, given all the protests, may not even want to touch it anymore.

Now President Lee is calling for a calm of national unity while promising, for the first time, to be "humble before the people's voices." Interesting.

Example No. 3: Americans whose multimillion-dollar homes face foreclosure because they can't meet the mortgage payments anymore. This is even happening to a famous former late-night American TV talk show host (and evident former multimillionaire) who has been in the news with much moaning and groaning about his fate.

He's not the only American who has been in over his head and faces the loss of an overpriced home. The root of all evil, as they say, is money, and now some Americans who once appeared to have plenty of it before seem to have not enough of it now. The culprit here is not so much a sagging economy as sagging humility.

Like a Musharraf who equates himself with Pakistan itself, or a Lee who thinks he can push Korean voters around like intimidated corporate underlings, the American consumer has been committing the sin of happy hubris that now looks to be turning, for many of them at least, into unhappy humiliation. The antidote to humiliation is this: self-imposed humility. It is a lifelong virtue that can work for all of us.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a veteran journalist, lives in a relatively modest home that he says is in no danger of foreclosure so far. © 2008 Tom Plate

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