Children, when at their best being children, are humble. They have little choice. Their naturally underdeveloped sense of self-assurance translates their dependencies into gratitude offered up to those willing to leave their own egos for a while to give help. In that relationship the humble by virtue engage the humble by necessity, and it is a beautiful thing to see. There is an aphorism: Who is tallest? He who will stoop down to help a child.
A child’s humility is an ever-present gift in waiting to adults who may have forgotten what it is like to be a child. Extended-family life is therapeutic in part because it enables this gift-giving, and it is why forms of modernity and post-modernity that segregate daily life by age cohorts is so destructive of social harmony and ultimately trust. For the young look up to, admire and learn from the elderly, and the elderly gain energy and hope from simply being with and pouring their insights onto the young. Those of middle age are Janus-faced, looking toward older and younger alike and, with any luck, gaining wisdom for use in the third third of their own lives. Families are like coral organisms in which the whole defines the parts and the parts define a whole that no one can tease apart as it tumbles along in time.
Gifts on offer are sometimes not received. I remember as a child hearing adults talking about me and things that concerned me as though I were not there. I was often third-personed, irritatingly and sometimes hurtfully. Just because children have not yet learned to articulate their ideas and feelings does not mean they do not understand what is being said within the ambit of their hearing. They do understand much of the time, if not details than purposes and intentions. A child’s innocence owes to a lack of experience, not a lack of intelligence. Children are young, not stupid.
To punctuate the thought, a rabbinic legend holds that children in utero know everything important, but that as they are being born an angel taps each child gently on the forehead, causing them to forget—and so begins the process of re-learning that which they already once knew as God’s next gift to the world.
In a somewhat similar vein, Picasso declared that all children are artists, the challenge being how to remain an artist as one grows up. He spoke of painting, sculpture, dance, and music, but the same insight applies to the arts of the soul. Robert Coles taught how children exhibit an innate moral sense to go with their in-born capacity for grammar. They figure out the basic difference between right and wrong on their own, and so often express a natural, unbidden humility when found in the wrong. Then the wiles of adolescent sophistication distract them and, as with another angel tap—this one not always so gentle—they forget. Defensive excuses that estrange truth displace admissions of shortcomings. Ego banishes humility from the Garden, where the trees left lonely of human company soon grow thorns.
Parents know about this. Our sweet children, once nuzzled dreamily in our laps and bosoms, suddenly become demanding, obstreperous demons making baseless (we hope) accusations that embarrass the sirens of logic themselves. How does this happen? Why does it happen?
Humility hides within unspoken wisdom. Its medium is feeling, not thought, so it expresses itself in emotion rather than words. It is a form of wisdom that requires an inward silence to perceive it. It is quintessentially a child’s wisdom that most adults become too busy and distracted to hear, for there are memos to write, meetings to attend, money to make. Many promise for a fee to make us more eloquent in our memos and meetings so as to hone our presentational skills, to be more persuasive salesman. But who will teach us to be still, to be silent, to listen to ourselves, to find our own stores of humility? Perhaps a child? Hold that thought, please.
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Here in Singapore, in the noisy hawker food palaces sprinkled throughout the island at train junctions, bus depots, university campuses and random city intersections, one can spy the signs reading, in English, this side “halal” and that side “non-halal” on the wheeled multi-shelf tray-return carriages.
The hawker centers are gastronomically ecumenical; Chinese food dominates, but Tamil and Malay booths are rarely absent. Malay food is often designated “Muslim” food, meaning to most “no pork, no lard”. But it also means that any meat on offer is slaughtered by halal method. Most South Asians in Singapore are Hindu but some are Muslim, so most non-vegetarian Indian hawker stalls and restaurants use only halal meat. In grocery stores, too, most frozen meat packages, the majority imported from Malaysia, bear halal certification emblems. This is despite the fact that nearly three-quarters of Singapore’s population is ethnic Chinese, who are fond of pork and could care less about meat being halal or not.
As it happens, the “halal/non-halal” signs on the tray return carriages have appeared only in the past four to five years. Educated Chinese here interpret the demand for such signage as evidence of neo-fundamentalism rising in the Malayosphere, and they are not mistaken. They are willing and wise to accommodate rising levels of observance and piety among Singaporean Muslims, but it makes many worry about a quickening synapse between piety and politicization, and potentially violence, and so daunts their vision of the country’s future.
An acquaintance of ethnic-Chinese originmdescribed to me the mostly unspoken anxiety about the rising religiosity of Malays in Singapore. Paraphrasing the late Lee Kwan Yew, he observed: “They never cared about the hahal/non-halal distinction until recently, and some of those who have insisted on it drink alcohol and are not mosque-goers. This divides us, and we should not be more divided; we should be more united in a harmonious society.”
“Yes”, I answered, “I understand. But did you ever put yourself in a Malay’s place, which is to be a minority of 10-15% in a land most consider, accurately or not, their own native land? Their concerns may have less to do with religion than with asserting their group identity.”
“Perhaps, but the assertion is expressed in religious terms, and the halal thing is just an example of irrational superstition, like their belief in jinns and magical spirits; it holds them back from becoming competitive members of a progressing society and world.”
Upon hearing this I had to take a deep breath and remind myself that this person did not know of my respect for the laws of kashrut and kosher slaughtering, which are akin both historically and in spirit to Muslim halal practices. So I asked, as innocently as possible—since I know that this is a firmly held but widespread misunderstanding, and not only in Southeast Asia: “What makes you think that halal slaughtering is based on irrational superstition?”
“It’s just a primitive blood taboo; it’s all superstition and silly magic with hocus pocus incantations”, he answered.
I changed the subject, because I’ve knocked my head against this particular wall before, and saw no good purpose to be served by doing it again.
Actually, as all educated Jews and Muslims know, ritual slaughtering is not a primitive blood taboo superstition. At the very least, the draining of blood from an animal prevents meat from rapidly putrefying, especially in warm climates. But that is not how Jewish and Muslim faith traditions teach the reasons for ritual slaughter, for they care more about normative codes than they do even about sanitation and health.
The laws concerning slaughtering animals, in both Abrahamic faith traditions, stem from a sense of reverence for all life. The related rituals warn us against and prevent us from taking life wantonly and cruelly. Both traditions recognize that cruelty is seamless: Encourage or enable cruelty toward animals and that cruelty will eventually repay itself against people, even against one’s own families and friends. Compared to what they replaced, the methods were designed to be as painless to the animal as possible. They were also designed to minimize the animal’s panic and distress; thus, no animal may be slaughtered in the presence of other animals of the same kind.
These laws are of a piece with a moral tradition that emphasizes the good and the pure as against the violent and the careless. It is why, too, Islamic law follows Jewish law in specifying which non-domesticated animals may and may not be hunted and how, and strictly forbids all hunting for mere sport as obscenely wasteful and cruel.
Ultimately, then, ritual slaughtering laws in Judaism and Islam are about humility. The world was not created for the exclusive use of human beings. We may not take thoughtlessly of nature’s bounty because it is not ours to plunder: We cannot in any full sense own it because we did not create it. We as dependents, as children of sorts, owe gratitude to the real owner, and that is why blessings expressing gratitude are said before and after meals, and also before slaughtering an animal. These are not superstitions designed to palliate or trick a capricious deity; these are rituals that turn the prosaic act of eating common to all animals into an act of poetry for the benefit of refining the human spirit.
The same logic within the same moral system informs Jewish and Islamic prohibitions against destroying trees, especially fruit trees, in the course of battle. Anyone reading these texts and thinking they are about two completely different subjects simply does not understand the overarching moral sensibility that binds them together. So, just another primitive superstition, related to beliefs about jinns cavorting about in the form of forest spirits? Really? At a time of mad environmental despoliation, of the wanton, violent, and careless destruction of the world’s precious forests at truly alarming rates, this is the kind of “superstition” we need a lot more of.
* * *
Certain professions nurture humility. Among them are agriculture, for any success we may have is at the mercy of nature; science, for we are inevitably made aware of so much we do not know, and that we must depend on one another to gain new knowledge; and medicine, because despite our best efforts some patients still die from diseases that may one day be curable.
Other professions centered around the acquisition and management of power—which Henry Adams once dubbed the “dogmatic stations” in life—tend to alienate humility:
No man, however strong, can serve ten years as a school-master, priest, or senator and remain fit for anything else. All the dogmatic stations in life have the effect of fixing a certain stiffness of attitude forever, as though they mesmerized the subject. . . . The effect of power and publicity on all men is the aggravation of self, a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies, a diseased appetite, like a passion for drink or perverted tastes. . . . The rule [is] that a friend in power was a friend lost.
Lord Acton expressed a similar point, which comes clear if we recall all three parts of his famous dictum instead of just the first two:
Absolute power corrupts absolutely;
Great men are seldom good men.
What does the third line mean, and how does it relate to the first two? Consider that a statesman or a general or a corporate executive must deal with large movements of people, resources, and slices of time if he or she is to be effective. Being responsible for whole nations, or many thousands of shareholders, is not ipso facto ignoble, but the scale of judgements, moral and otherwise, that must be made by those in such “power stations” are sweeping by their very nature. So the more power a man has, and the more sweeping his purview need be, the narrower his priorities become to the maximum feasible exclusion of all constraints designed to keep him within the laws defining his office.
Can a statesman remain conventionally pious when faced with choices among lesser evils, which is almost invariably the character of portentous decisions in international politics? Of course not, which is why Machiavelli, the father of modern Western political science, rightly took pains to distinguish between the morality incumbent upon princes and that weighing on typical priests and parishioners.
Can a general in the heat of a military campaign afford to agonize over the fate of individual soldiers that he orders about, some of whom are sure to be wounded and killed in combat? If he did he would paralyze himself, and all would be lost.
Can the CEO of a huge international corporation, with fiduciary responsibilities to thousands of shareholders, afford to immerse himself in pondering the long-term negative consequences to nature and society alike that his decisions on behalf of short-term profit and mid-term business viability may cause? If he did so with any regularity he would soon be out of a job, for no shortage of replacements wishing to occupy his office and earn his salary exists.
This is what Lord Acton meant when he wrote that great men are seldom good men. Great men cannot afford to be humble in occupations where their competitors are often anything but. And if they cannot be humble they cannot be good. As Saul Bellow put it in 1964 though his character “Moses Herzog”: “In every community there is a class of people profoundly dangerous to the rest. I don’t mean the criminals. For them we have punitive sanctions. I mean the leaders. Invariably the most dangerous people seek the power.”
“Seldom” is not always, and “invariably” is an exaggeration suitable for fiction, perhaps, but not for us to take literally—as opposed to literarily—in the here and now. We can all think of some great men who were also good, or who at least recognized the tension and struggled not to forfeit their moral balance to the Lord of the Flies. Said General William Tecumseh Sherman of Abraham Lincoln: “Of all the men I have met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.” Closer to our own time most would name Gandhi and Mandala, not that either man was quite as pure as his posthumous reputation portrays. The iconic example is of course Moses, the humblest of men and therefore in rabbinic eyes also the greatest, who was pressed largely against his will into becoming a political and even a military leader.
It is even easier, unfortunately, to name those “great” men concerned with the fates of entire nations and generations who were not only not good but who were positively bad people—“bad” defined as those not merely resigned to the wrenching choices they had to make, but who actively enjoyed the carnage and cruelty their decisions produced. It is the difference between stoic realism and sadism. From the fabled Caligula and the merciless Genghis Khan to the totalitarian monsters of the 20th century, and even to the Saddam Husseins and Bashir al-Asads of our own time—just to note some Middle Eastern cases—we know their names.
Most of those in the “dogmatic stations” of high politics and business today are neither good nor very bad, but somewhere in the wide normal in between. Those who are very bad probably cannot be deterred, only somehow removed. But perhaps we can push those in the wide normal a little toward the good side, toward recognizing the beauty and necessity of humility. But how?
Well, let us stipulate that we can’t get them to observe conscious limits on what and how they eat, to train themselves toward the good and pure and away from the cruel and thoughtless. We can’t make important busy people observe any kind of sabbath, even though in these frenetic times, more than ever, we must remember to stop so that we can stop to remember what really matters in people’s lives.
But maybe pushing back against the “stiffness of attitude” and the “killing of sympathies” that regularly desensitize the hearts of “important” people wielding authority can be achieved by persuading every such person to spend at least a half hour a day caring for or playing with a young child. Nothing known to humankind is a better teacher of love and joy, patience and forbearance, kindness and grace, humor and yes, humility, than that. We must therefore start a “Stoop Down to Help a Child” movement, and persuade political, military, and business leaders everywhere to model it.
Is this a practical suggestion? Perhaps not, but we can’t know unless and until we try. I’ve created a suggestion box for how to achieve this. The first suggestion concerns organizing clergymen, farmers, scientists, and medical doctors to promote the concept. Who will contribute the next idea?
Dr. Adam Garfinkle, a regular columnist for al-Mesbar, is this year Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.