On Healing 9/2/2002: Humility, not arrogance, will help us deal with Sept. 11

Sept. 11 will be this nation’s national day of mourning. We will come together to reflect and talk about what we lost and about how things are now different. We will mourn the loss of our illusion of security and we will express our great sadness and fear about our children’s future.

Since that tragic day a year ago, I have heard many ask: “What will become of us?” But I think the more compelling question is: “Since 9/11, who will we become?”

I have always wondered about why so many cultures around the world feel so much resentment toward the United States. After 9/11 my curiosity turned to concern, so I raised the question with a friend over lunch.

“Oh that’s easy,” he replied. “It’s the swagger. They hate us because of our swagger.”

He explained that whenever we are threatened, we threaten back, only more aggressively. And whenever we are assaulted, we assault back, only more aggressively.

As an example of the American swagger, he cited President Bush’s speech after the 9/11 attacks when he said: “We will bring them to justice, or we will bring justice to them.”

We all know people with that swagger – people who are quick to pass judgment or imply they are strong but others have weak characters. They are people who seem to claim their position on the high road by describing other people’s laziness, weakness or irrelevance.

To some extent, most of us are those people. All of us are guilty of describing people in a few dismissive words: “People on welfare don’t really want to work.” “Obese people are weak.” “Muslims are evil.” Or even seemingly more benign comments such as: “She is manipulative.” “He is mean.”

What appears to be arrogance is really the opposite. Arrogance masks insecurity, and judgment masks anxiety. As a nation and as individuals, the swagger, the arrogance is a mask.

To better understand this type of arrogance, let’s take a look at its opposite: humility.

If judgment is looking down on someone and not seeing their humanity, humility is looking up to someone in a genuine effort to see their humanity.

Many people confuse humility with humiliation or shame. Humiliation comes from the outside when our defenses are stripped and we feel exposed. Shame and humiliation are social phenomena; people rarely feel shame when they are alone.

The emotions of humiliation and shame are some of the most painful we can experience – so painful that we will do anything to avoid these feelings. That is why shame is frequently a precursor to depression, anxiety or violence. As a nation, one could argue that we were humiliated on 9/11. That is why the instant rage and bloodthirsty demand for revenge. Humiliation happens when our secret fears and vulnerabilities are exposed.

But that is not the same as humility. Humility happens when we stop hiding what we are ashamed of. Humility is not loss of respect or power; it is genuine respect for the ways in which we are powerless. Humility is not loss of dignity. As a matter of fact, genuine dignity goes hand-in-hand with humility.

Humility is not shameful; it is the opposite. In fact, most of the world’s religions encourage humility. Humility does not deny or combat vulnerability; it honors it. Humility opens the door to compassion. It helps us understand that we are vulnerable and so are our friends, lovers and enemies.

Today, all nations are also vulnerable. That is the most profound lesson of 9/11. National leaders often say: “This vulnerability is not acceptable. We will do whatever it takes to make ourselves less vulnerable.”

From a political or strategic perspective, that statement makes sense. But as a psychologist, I know that when we deny our vulnerability, we deny that others suffer with feelings of vulnerability, and then everyone is at more risk. I know that when we deny our vulnerability, we deny our humility and we deny our humanity.

The fact is, this horrible disaster may have humiliated us. If so, the national rage and indignation are understandable. So are the anxiety and withdrawal – all classic reactions to humiliation. But perhaps beyond the terror and intolerance, we can look inside and find our humility. If so, this horror could contribute to helping us become more human and our nation become more humane. After all, humility enables us to identify with all living beings and helps diminish hatred – and that is what started the reign of terror in the first place: Hatred.

But there are two unique aspects of this death.

First, this death happened to our whole culture. Secondly, this death was a murder. As a result, some of us will cry and feel great sadness. Some will rage and curse the evil people responsible for those events. These are all natural responses to a death.

One of the functions of mourning is to encourage us to look back and remember what we had and what we lost. But on this national day of mourning, we must all look to the future and ponder the question: “Who will we become?”

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