In Search of Modesty

Santa Clarita Signal • Opinion Column • Ethically Speaking • October 10, 2010


In Search of Modesty

David W. Hegg

I often wonder just when, and at whose insistence, the great virtues of modesty and humility became detrimental to the human condition. They seem not only to be in short supply, but increasingly their absence is applauded and even intentionally sought after.

I remember seeing their demise when my children were in elementary school. It seems the monthly awards assembly was the administration's opportunity to declare that all the students were outstanding, and even those who actually weren't outstanding, were declared to be outstanding on the basis of their desire to be outstanding. Our kids brought home ribbons and certificates and coupons and awards on a regular basis, and they all testified to the fact that our kids were amazing, smart, outstanding, and the proud purveyors of astonishing achievement. Who knew that first-graders could accomplish so much? But the fact was, they really hadn't accomplished much of anything.  We could have echoed Churchill in saying "never have so many made so much out of so little for the sake of self-esteem."

Back then we were asked to believe that a high level of self-esteem was the necessary pre-requisite to high levels of accomplishment. You have to think you're great in order to do great things! And this still seems to be a bedrock principle in our world today. But can anyone else see the glaring error here? Since when should hubris be an adequate substitute for ability? Shouldn't it be that feeling good about ourselves should come after we have actually done good things? Now I'm not suggesting that we never compliment our children, or encourage them through positive feedback. But what I am suggesting is that an inflated self-concept is actually a hindrance to achievement simply because it devalues the place of self-improvement, sacrifice, and plain old hard work.

The fact is, those who come to think highly of themselves before they ever really accomplish anything enter our adult world with a sense of personal entitlement. Talk to any hiring manager today and they'll tell you that the generation raised on a steady stream of self-esteem believes the world owes them everything simply because they come out of the box labeled "outstanding." And this sense of entitlement erodes a personal work ethic, usually seeks shortcuts, is easily frustrated, and finds it nearly impossible to persevere in the midst of trying circumstances, or grow in the areas of personal weakness. Why? Because they have it pre-installed on their human hard drive that they are amazing, outstanding, and everyone needs to recognize it and stay out of their way.

It wasn't always so. In fact, the virtue of modesty was once highly valued. Modesty can be defined as "the quality or state of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one's abilities." Sometimes we call this humility, although if we think of humility as weak, we've veered off into wrong thinking. Modesty isn't a false sense of weakness, adopted for the purpose of making people think we're outstanding in our humility. Modesty is really a balanced and fair assessment of our abilities and character. It is the unwillingness to be self-promoting, believing instead that our actions will speak for us. Modesty is a self-confidence that is neither proud nor pouty, neither haughty nor broken, not loud, but also not silent. As a virtue, modesty allows for collaboration since the modest person has nothing to gain from bragging, and nothing to lose through vulnerability.

If we are ever to recover the virtue of modesty in our society, we have to understand that beneficial self-esteem will always be the result of reality, not wishful thinking. Achievement, both in the building of character and the accomplishment of good life actions, must always precede our self-confidence, and a fair and sound assessment of ourselves must always govern the way we are represented to others. 

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul put it this way: "For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith" (12:3). He called his readers to use "sound judgment" when considering themselves. This was a call to modesty, to an active and intentional humility. This call was a necessary control on the natural tendency to think of self more highly than was good either for the individual or their community. 

If history is a good teacher, than one of her lessons is that pride has blinded many a good man and woman to the reality that they were really just a legend in their own minds. And over time, no one wanted to be around them. I'm afraid that a whole generation of elementary kids is going to find out the hard way that they're really not outstanding. Let's hope they catch on to the beauty of modesty before all those ribbons and medals and awards and superlatives become too heavy for their underdeveloped character, and they fall on their faces in the race of life.