Monday, 6 June 2011

Hubris and it's antidote

Life really humbles me sometimes. Everything seems to be going really smoothly and then something or someone comes along and metaphorically speaking, punches me in the stomach, knocks the wind out of me and puts me back on my bottom. Life rarely works out exactly how we expect it to. We make our plans and things just don’t come to pass exactly the way we had hoped. Of course sometimes they do, but often they don’t. By the way sometimes they work out far better than we could have hoped for. How often in life have we heard that cautionary phrase? “Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.”

I love the lyrics to this New Model Army song “God Save me”, they keep ringing in my ears. “God save me from everything I really want, God save me from everything I really feel God save me from everything I should have said, Crash down the reckless soul” I discovered some time ago that some of the things I really want aren’t very good for me. It doesn’t stop me wanting them though.

I have noticed how from time to time nature has this ability to cut humanity down to size. It seems that no matter how a hard we try, no matter how much we impose our will, we cannot control the elements, we cannot claim full dominion over them no matter how great our wish, or desire.

Jeffrey Lockwood, in his meditation “Go Fly a Kite” claims, “In an age of technological hubris, we must confront the realisation that the wind is absolutely uncontrollable.

 The wind is a wild beast with no regard for our rationality. It mauls our sense of dominion... Those who are determined to dominate the world are antagonised by the wind. But those who accept the untamed forces of nature avoid such frustrations. And it is possible then to move from a mere defence of our sanity to genuine flourishing.”

The last couple of  years has revealed powerfully to me how little control we have over the elements. The horrors of the floods in Pakistan is a powerful example of this, or the earthquakes in Haiti, New Zealand and especially Japan and the Tsunami that followed. Can anyone ever remember jet planes being grounded by volcanic ash before? The whole of northern Europe was brought to a standstill by this, for weeks, and it would appear that it has returned. Yes we are at the mercy of the elements, there seems little doubt about that.  It sometimes amuses me how we humans believe that the earth is here to serve us, because she doesn’t seem to agree.

It seems in other areas of life humanity has been humbled too. We are currently clawing our way out of the worst financial meltdown in human history. And how was this caused? We overstretched ourselves, we got greedy, we lived beyond our means. They do say that we reap what we sow, well for the last couple of years it has been a bad harvest.

I love these words from another New Model Army Song “Into the Wind”, they keep on ringing in my ears too. “We went to see the fall of Rome - I thought it would please us. To watch how the mighty go in a blaze of hubris. But I just stood there hypnotised by all the beautiful madness Face into the wind, boys, face into the wind.”

“To watch how the mighty go in a blaze of Hubris.”

Hubris is the Ancient Greek word for over stretching ourselves; it translates as arrogance or overwhelming pride. The ancient Greeks saw Hubris as the very root of tragedy. Their tragic dramas, played out at their religious festivals centred on human beings, often rulers who forgot their human limitations. In these tragedies the audiences were reminded of the dangers of acting like immortals or Gods. They taught the value of knowing themselves, who they really are and to know what it is to be truly human.

Perhaps those that rule our world, our leaders, the financiers and even the celebrities who many of us lookup to in awe in the same way that the ancient Greeks looked at their God’s should take heed of these stories. The Empires do eventually fall like the walls of Jericho or burn like Rome. Or they are brought to a standstill by volcanic ash.

Hubris of course manifests itself in many forms. The one place it appears where you’d think it ought not to is in religion. Yet it’s probably more obvious there than in any other area of life. Those who believe they have a direct link to God and know not only what God’s will for themselves is, but what it is for everyone else do appear to be suffering from the worst form of hubris. My response to such thinking is usually “Come off it who do you think you are?” By trying to convert a person to your way of believing seems like the worst kind of Hubris to me. Although of course if I’m honest I’ve suffered from it myself from time to time. I could be accused of it now, while writing this blog.

Sceptics are no different. To belittle someone’s genuine faith by calling it a superstition or merely a crutch is deeply disrespectful. It certainly does not honour or respect their humanity. No one can ever truly know what is to have walked in another’s shoes and to have lived their lives. To be smug about one’s personal so called rationalism seems like the worst kind of arrogance to me. The question I’d like to ask is why we need to spend our time proving what someone else genuinely believes as wrong or false or immature, wherever we find ourselves on the faith spectrum? That said, once again, I have to hold up my hand and admit that it’s not something I’m immune from. As I heard someone say many years ago “To be right you don’t have to make anybody else wrong”

I need to remember that one more often. “To be right you don’t have to make anybody else wrong.”
Hubris is an insidious beast. We often fail to see it in ourselves. Because Hubris is so well hidden in ourselves it can have a nasty habit of sneaking up on us. Why you may well ask? Well because it is neatly packaged as the virtue of truthfulness and righteousness.

Fortunately there exists a healthy antidote to hubris, humility!

Humility may well be humanities greatest virtue. It is essentially about accepting our human limitations. By doing so we become teachable, we learn from others, which leads not only to us improving our own lives but the world that we inhabit but do not own;  which in turn leads us to nurture and develop healthy relationships with other people. By recognising that we are not, nor do we speak for God we will open ourselves up to voice of transcendence as it speaks to us in life. In doing so we will be honouring life itself as sacred, which will hopefully lead to us taking care of what is our responsibility; our own lives mind, body and soul, our families, our homes, our friendships, our communities, our planet.

We need to look after these connections because it is they that sustain us in life. Jeffrey Lockwood describes them as the strings that allow the kites of our lives to dance in the sky. He says “To be sane, embrace the wind. But to be joyous, fly a kite. Dance between caprice and control. The wind pulls the fragile sail upward and the flyer plays out the string. Left to the turbulence, the kite will be dashed to the ground or swept over the horizon. Left on the ground, the kite is moribund, stagnant. But between sky and earth is enchantment.
We are kites, buffeted by the vicissitudes of the spirit, the squalls of fortune, the breezes of intuition, and the glorious gusts of chance encounters. And we are stabilized by a tail - the solidity of the mind, the bedrock of reason, the granite of science. If our tail is too heavy, we never leave the ground. If it is too light, we spin crazily.” I love that line “Dance between caprice and control” For me this is where the beauty of life is, it sings to me about the joy of living. As does the line “...the glorious gusts of chance encounters”...I love it.

Hubris for me can be the most inhibiting and potential dangerous delusion a human being can suffer from. In the end it actually stops us living the best life we can. Humility on the other end helps us to see the truth about ourselves “Warts and all and beauty spots too”. From here we can honestly improve our own lives and those who we share this spinning planet with. It achieves more than that though. It draws us closer together not only to one another but to this amazing universe that we play a small but vital role in. The dangers stem from losing sight of this and believing that this universe and rest of humanity revolves around us and is there to do our bidding.

Having said all that it really does not matter how powerful we believe we are because nature has a funny way or cutting us down to right size, as the last couple of years seem to have proved once again. We can believe that we have dominion over the earth but the wind and the rain seem to say otherwise.
I think I might just “Go fly a kite”, “Dance between caprice and control” and see what “chance encounters” get blown my way.

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