Reclaiming Humility in the Age of Narcissism

Parshat Shoftim
September 10, 2016—7 Elul 5776

Have you, or somebody you know and love, ever done the following?

You are at a nice restaurant for dinner. The waiter serves the entrees. It’s a beautiful, interesting, artistic dish. Food as art. Before eating it, you or somebody you love photograph it, and then send the photo into cyberspace. Look at what I am having for dinner.

You are at some natural site. One of our national parks. The mountains. The trees. The green. The blue sky. Or historic site. In front of the Jefferson Memorial. Or art museum. There is an original Matisse or Degas or Picasso. And just then you respond to the moment by shooting a selfie. It’s not about the mountain or the memorial or the Matisse. It’s about me as I visit this site.

You post an idea, a photo, an experience, on social media, and you are addicted to finding out how many likes you get. Our Israeli friend and teacher Micah Goodman observed that the big philosophical question used to be: if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Now the question is: if you have an experience, but it does not generate lots of likes on Facebook, did you really have the experience?

Look at me, look at me. What do you think of me? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat all coalesce to make us think that we are the center of the universe. If you google the question, “Does the internet lead to narcissism?,” you will find numerous articles like the one in The Atlantic entitled “The Internet ‘Narcissism Epidemic,’” whose thesis is, and I quote, “We are in the midst of a ‘narcissism epidemic’” caused by social media. A New York piece argues, again I quote, that “social media is a narcissism enabler.”

Small wonder that in his recent book, The Road to Character, David Brooks has a section on today’s ethos that he calls “The Big Me.” He argues that since the mid twentieth century, there has been a seismic explosion in narcissism. He cites a few telling proofs. In 1950, a Gallup poll asked high school seniors if they considered themselves to be a very important person. 12 percent said yes. Gallup asked the same question again in 2005—are you a very important person—and this time 80 percent said yes.

Brooks also cites what he calls “the narcissism test.” Psychologists read people statements and ask if the statements apply to them. Statements such as “I like to be the center of attention …I show off if I get the chance because I am extraordinary …Somebody should write a biography about me.” p. 7.

Brooks observes that “The median narcissism score has risen 30 percent in the last two decades.” p. 7.

This narcissism epidemic is both a spiritual problem and a practical problem.

It is a spiritual problem because it conflicts with the core Jewish virtue of humility. The Torah uses exactly one adjective to describe Moses. It says he is the most humble man on the planet. He dies without a burial site so that people would not make a pilgrimage. Even the Haggadah that tells the Passover story barely mentions him. The clear lesson of our greatest teacher and leader is it’s not about us.

The narcissism epidemic is also a practical problem in that the social media that enables it and deepens it is here to stay. Brooks can cite longingly the 1950 Gallup poll that bespoke a seemly humility, but there is no going back to the technology of the 1950s that made such humility plausible. And, all that technology is also a wonderful thing, a way to enhance connectivity. I can’t tell you how many special lifecycle moments I have been at, from weddings and britot to viduis and funerals, where this technology enabled somebody who was not there physically to be there virtually in a way that was really helpful.

How can we reclaim the authentic Jewish virtue of humility in the age of narcissism when the technology that fuels narcissism is not going away and in many other respects is a very good thing?

The place to look is Moses himself. How does Moses avoid an ego problem? He does have an anger management problem that he never solves, but not an ego problem. Knowing God face to face, working all those miracles and signs and wonders, how did Moses avoid look at me, look at me, what do you think of me?

The answer is found in a famous verse in our Torah reading this morning: Tzedek tzedek tirdof l’ma’an tichyeh v’yarashta et haaretz asher Adonai elohecha notein lach. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. Deut. 16: 20. Where is Moses in this verse? Moses has lost himself by investing himself in a large, worthy project: the building of a just and ethical society that is in sacred covenant with God.

Can we find a large, worthy project in which we can lose ourselves by investing ourselves?

NBC newsman Tom Brokaw recently published a piece in the Wall Street Journal about his junior high school history teacher in South Dakota in 1952-53, a man named Harlan Holm. Here is Brokaw’s description of his teacher 64 years later:

From the beginning, he was a different kind of junior-high teacher than the others, most of whom followed the playbook of memorization of dates with the emphasis on manifest destiny.

Mr. Holm introduced us to the idea that history is vibrant and exciting when experienced through the voices and emotions of those who experienced it first-hand.

Mr. Holm asked 12 year old Tom Brokaw to imagine what Lincoln felt as he wrote and delivered the Gettysburg Address. Think about the actors who make history happen! What are they thinking? What are they feeling? What is their interior life like? That will connect you, 12 year old junior high student, to the meaning of that historical moment.

Roll the film forward. Tom Brokaw and Harlan Holm lost touch with one another. And then one day, at the beginning of this year, Tom Brokaw sees an obituary notice from The Des Moines Register about the passing of Harlan Holm.

Mr. Holm had died at the age of 91. It recounted his many years as a teacher and administrator in Iowa and South Dakota school systems.

As I read on, I was stunned. Mr. Holm, the quiet modest teacher who brought such serious purpose to a classroom of rowdy 12 year olds…that same Mr. Holm had six battle stars from World War II.

He trained in heavy weapons and fought in North Africa, Salerno and Anzio, Italy, before participating in the invasion of southern France as a combat engineer in August 1944. As the Seventh Army moved across France and into Germany, Mr. Holm was there, participating in the building of a crucial pontoon bridge across the Rhine at Worms, Germany. He uttered not one word of those experiences in the nine months he commanded our attention in that seventh grade classroom. (emphasis added)

The teacher who emphasized the importance of the interior lives of the actors in history was himself a major actor in history—he would be nominated to receive the French Legion of Honor for his combat service in France—but paradoxically would not say a word about his own service, nor his interior life as he served.

Tom Brokaw sees this winning combination of service and humility as characteristic of what he calls The Greatest Generation that fought in World War Two.

Can we, generations later, achieve our own version of this winning combination of accomplishment and humility?

Moses teaches us that the answer is yes. This combination of accomplishment and humility does not belong to any one historic generation, but belongs to anyone in any and every generation who can lose themselves by investing themselves wholly in some large, worthy project.

Moses lost himself in the building of an ethical society in covenant with God.

Harlan Holm lost himself in making the world safe for democracy by defeating Nazi Germany.

What about us today? There is no shortage of large worthy projects in which we can lose ourselves.

A strong vibrant progressive Judaism that is steeped in the sources and alive to modernity. That work is ongoing.

A strong and secure Israel that is Jewish and democratic, that protects the rights of all of its citizens and that lives in peace. That work is ongoing.

An America of economic justice where all of our citizens feel that the American dream is still alive. That work is ongoing.

An America of racial justice where the lives of all citizens are equally sacred and equally protected by law. That work is ongoing.

An America with a healthier politics, where reasonable citizens who don’t see eye to eye can still come together for the common good. That work is ongoing.

In this new year, may our voice not be: look at me, look at me, what do you think of me?

But rather: look at this world, look at this world, there is so much work to do. How can I lose myself by being of real service to somebody else? Shabbat shalom.