Humble strength. That sounds like a contradiction in terms. Yet the year 2013 could be remembered for two men showing how earthshaking humility can be, especially when wielded in positions of leadership.
I am referring to Nelson Mandela, who died this year at the age of 96; and to Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis in March, head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, charged with sedition against the racist apartheid South African government. His release came after pressure from within the country—widespread protests and riots—as well as from international campaigns that often included celebrities.
In 1994, at the age of 76, Mandela became his country’s first black president. Easily, he could have launched a campaign of retaliation against white South Africans. But he chose instead to work toward reconciliation—a road he had taken even before he was elected president. One early example came in 1995, when he attended a World Rugby Cup match wearing a jersey shirt of the Springboks, the all-white South African team, to congratulate them. It brought some of the burly rugby players to tears, and sent a strong message to South Africa, and the world, about his “Rainbow Nation” vision for South Africa.
Mandela always insisted that he was only one of many leaders who moved South Africa forward. He served five years as president and refused to run for a second term, but spent the rest of his life still as the gentle leader, speaking up when needed, not just for South African political issues but also for many causes—from children’s welfare to the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS.
It is not surprising that the memorial rites for this very humble man were attended by many of the world’s most powerful heads of state.
Like Mandela, Pope Francis was 76 (well, four months short) when he took up the most challenging of leadership roles. Yet from the very beginning, the world could tell he was going to be a very different pope. Greeting expectant crowds right after his election, he delivered a short message, ending with an un-popish “Good night and sleep well.”
When it was time to receive congratulations from his fellow cardinals, he did this standing, rather than sitting on the papal throne. That gesture, and his insistence on using his cardinal’s pectoral cross, rather than a new one intended for popes, sent strong messages that he still considered the cardinals as his peers.
The world’s media have given wide publicity to Pope Francis’ many other instances of humility—from his choice of a guesthouse as a home rather than a palace, to his habit of personally calling people on the phone. All that has endeared him to many, “closed” and “open” Catholics, Catholics and non-Catholics, even to atheists.
Young and old
I do worry that people will think, oh, but these are men who mellowed with age. But if you look at their biographies, even the most critical ones, you will find that humility began in their youth.
Both were concerned, early in their lives, with social inequities, and they were often outspoken about the injustices, but the fire and fury seemed always tempered by humility. They were ready to listen to people and to dialogue, not out of political expediency alone but from a genuine willingness to learn more. It is not surprising that Pope Francis has urged the clergy to go out into the streets for their ministry.
The message of humility then is as important for young people because it is in young adulthood when one can become most vulnerable to becoming arrogant. The young tend to think, “I’m bright, I’m good at what I do, and the world owes me the best.”
The reality is that there are many other very bright, and perhaps more deserving, young people. So, your once promising young man or woman becomes embittered with age, always feeling, even as they do get promoted, that they deserve more and find ways to claw their way to the top even if it means putting others down. Assertiveness and ambition are always appreciated, but not aggressive arrogance—kayabangan in Filipino.
I can imagine how, throughout their lives, Pope Francis and Mandela were sometimes seen by their adversaries as weak, as wimps that could be manipulated. And I can imagine the two smiling as well whenever they would encounter such opponents. Early on, these two men probably realized political power is temporary and fleeting, and that is moral leadership that endures. They strategized, not in the Machievellian sense but as people who recognize the power of living out one’s principles, whether people are watching or not. They were strategists, too, in recognizing the moments when acts of humility were especially important.
More than happy
The message of humility from these two men is important as well for those who have made it to the top and then realize it’s almost time to retire, or to step aside. Unless you’ve fortified yourself with a strong dose of humility—no one is indispensable—what seems to be an impending “the end” can be terrifying. The saddest part is few people, maybe no one, can tell you that you are wrong, and when you finally lose power, people drift away leaving you alone, very alone, in what could have been the golden years. The saddest part is that many will still wonder what went wrong, and think again, that the world owes them a better deal.
Numerous studies in psychology have shown how euphoria fades all too quickly with the material: that new expensive shirt or handbag or car. . . or facelift, looked so good when you first bought it, but now even your friends’ compliments are fading, soon to disappear. Psychology studies also show the same quick fading of euphoria—sometimes even followed by depression—that comes with applause, awards, perks and privileges.
Humility means you’re always thinking someone deserves better: slowing down when someone needs to cross the street, comforting a child in distress, keeping quiet when someone needs your ear. And when good things happen to the humble, the joy lasts much longer because they are often unexpected.
All the world’s languages are inadequate in describing this kind of joy, or happiness, or euphoria. It may be better understood looking at the photographs—candid ones especially—of Pope Francis and Nelson Mandela and the people around them.
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