Today the grad students in my department were treated to a lunchtime talk with David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, on the topic of his new book–the disappearance of the virtue of humility from the public realm since WWII. (Brooks is teaching a course on humility at Yale this semester, which is why he was in town.) If you read his columns regularly, the book project is pretty much what you’d expect: the age of humble heroes is over, people these days are narcissistic, so let’s fix that by getting back in touch with our (sic) western civ roots. (Finally! A book for us, by us. The elite white male narrative of societal decline has been marginalized for too long. Amirite??)

Rather than enumerate a list of critiques of this project (on which, see…well, basically everything ever written under the broad labels of postcolonial, critical race, and feminist/womanist theory, not to mention our own Elizabeth‘s work. Valerie Saiving’s essay is also a locus classicus.), I want to offer this excerpt from Toni Morrison’s wrenching novel, A Mercy, which coursed through my head for the entire talk. If you haven’t read this book, which is a followup of sorts to Morrison’s classic Beloved, it is well worth your time. Especially if you think you’ll ever find yourself privileged and preaching on Job or humility:

Well, she thought, that was the true value of Job’s comforters. He lay wracked with pain and in moral despair; they told him about themselves, and when he felt even worse, he got an answer from God saying, Who on earth do you think you are? Question me? Let me give you a hint of who I am and what I know. For a moment Job must have longed for the self-interested musings of humans as vulnerable and misguided as he was. But a peek into Divine knowledge was less important than gaining, at last, the Lord’s attention. Which, Rebekka concluded, was all Job ever wanted. Not proof of His existence–he never questioned that. Nor proof of His power–everyone accepted that. He wanted simply to catch His eye. To be recognized not as worthy or worthless, but to be noticed as a life-form by the One who made and unmade it. Not a bargain; merely a glow of the miraculous.

But then Job was a man. Invisibility was intolerable to men. What complaint would a female Job dare to put forth? And if, having done so, and He deigned to remind her of how weak and ignorant she was, where was the news in that? What shocked Job into humility and renewed fidelity was the message a female Job would have known and heard every minute of her life.

I have to say that after his talk, I felt an unexpected sympathy with Mary Daly’s famous remark, “I don’t think about men. I really don’t care about them.”

6 thoughts

  1. I have read your post several times now… I’m still stuck on David Brooks teaching a course on humility. OK, now that I’ve got that one off my chest. I know, I am not expressing humility either, but what can I tell you.

    As for the rest of the post, I’m with you on the Toni Morrison selection that you’ve quoted. I have such vivid memories of reading Beloved, so long ago, but I never read A Mercy; I’ll put it on my list.

    I consider Mary Daly a patron saints of sorts. Oddly enough, I rarely self-define as a feminist, but her stance reminds me that there are times and places in faith, and in life, where we might need to pick up and leave with very little advance notice.

    As for her comment about men, I struggle with that one.

    Thanks for this post.

  2. I’m sorry – I’m still not quite over the brain-splosion of David Brooks teaching a course on humility (!!!). At least there was free lunch, right?

  3. Can’t white men be humble or teach the world anything? If they can why quibble every time one does. We need a world of full participation, we need a world of caring about everyone. We need a world were everyone has something to teach, including David Brooks.

    1. Of course “white men [can] be humble or teach the world anything” — privilege is not a complete blinder for everyone.

      My comment was about Brooks specifically, and the irony of him writing about humility: having spent a fair amount of time with his writings on income/class/poverty, I cannot think of anything positive that he has contributed to the liberation of the human spirit, or to the civic virtue of humility.

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