Monday, May 19, 2008

“Just Doing My Job”: Humble Heroism

Why be humble? It seems so passé. The word “humility” immediately conjures up the medieval image of a cringing, cloistered clergyman, subsisting on breadcrumbs and brackish water. The self-abnegation of classical humility seems centuries out of place in the 21st century, where self-promotion and self-indulgence are the norm. Humility can only get in the way of “exercising leadership” or “promoting your personal brand”.

It’s a shame we reject humility out of ignorance. A truly humble man is not meek, and does not lack in self confidence. Indeed, the humble man doesn’t aspire to glory, or humility; he simply wants to do his job. As the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot puts it:

“Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai would say: If you have learned a great deal of Torah, don’t take credit for yourself---it’s for this reason that you were created.”

This Mishnah teaches us that studying Torah, like any responsibility, should not be about fame and glory. The Mishnah also reminds us that the truly humble are interested in doing, not in being. They live to labor and achieve, but make little of it; they see themselves simply as doing what is expected of them. Their attitude is that they are “just doing their job”.

On a recent trip to Israel, I couldn’t help noticing how authentic heroes, from the soldier who just returned from hazardous duty as a sniper, to the guide who spent 25 years in a special ops unit, to a retired general whose heroism was critical to saving Israel from disaster in the Yom Kippur War, were all reluctant to speak about their exploits, and deflected praise by saying they just were doing what they were supposed to. They were self confident and successful, without a hint of self-promotion. They were humble, but not meek.

“I’m just doing my job” is the motto of humble heroes. Their humility is based on a profound work ethic which drives them to succeed in silence, content to have accomplished what life expected of them.


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

good point. i've heard before people talk about humility not being self-effacing, but just recognizing reality in a healthy way. "just doing your job" puts a whole nother layer on that.

Anonymous said...

So true... I often see simple acts of courage and humility by Soldiers deployed here to Iraq; many of them (at a very young age) want to make a positive difference in the world, and would rather build playgrounds for Iraqi school-children than have to patrol for criminals and insurgents. Thanks for a great thought, which I will share with some folks serving over here.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz said...

david - thanks for the comment! good luck in iraq!!