Writer and commentator David Brooks in his latest book, The Road to Character, has addressed the shift in our society from a culture of humility to the culture of what he calls the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.
The message is: “You are special. Trust yourself…. Movies from Pixar and Disney are constantly telling children how wonderful they are. Commencement speeches are larded with the same clichés: Follow your passion. Don’t accept limits. Chart your own course….. This is the gospel of self-trust.” (p.7)
Through the lives of great men and women: Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, President Eisenhower, General Marshall, George Eliot, Samuel Johnson, St. Augustine, Philip Randolph, Johnny Unitas and others, he examines the virtues they embodied.
He makes the case for countering the forces that encourage the Big Me, the self-love promoted by psychologist Carl Rogers, and the self-promotion fostered by the social media. He calls into question the idea that each of us is wonderful inside and the competitive pressure on the climb toward success.
“The meritocratic system wants you to be big about yourself – to puff yourself, to be completely sure about yourself, to believe that you deserve a lot and to get what you think you deserve (so long as it is good). The meritocracy wants you to assert and advertise yourself. It wants you to display and exaggerate your achievements. The achievement machine rewards you if you can demonstrate superiority – if with a thousand little gestures, conversational types, and styles of dress you can demonstrate that you are a bit smarter, hipper, more accomplished, sophisticated, famous, plugged in, and fashion-forward than the people around you.” (p.253)
He develops fifteen proposals for a Humility Code to answer the important questions: “Toward what should I orient my life? Who am I and what is my nature? How do I mold my nature to make it gradually better day by day? What virtues are the most important to cultivate and what weaknesses should I fear the most? How can I raise my children with a true sense of who they are and a practical set of ideas about how to travel the long road to character?” (p.261)
Jesus said it long ago: “The greatest among you will be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11,12) The way to abundant life is through sacrificial service, not self-promotion. That is also the definition of love – the love of Christ.