The gift of humility - C.K. Mathew (CS, Rajasthan)

Some weeks ago I wrote about the grace of forgiveness. Today I shall attempt to write about a close relative, its complex sister, humility. More particularly about the essential requirement of humility in people such as I who are in the field of public administration. I have written too, some blogs ago, and with no sense of arrogance or pomposity, of how we are really doing God's will when we carry out our responsibilities with a sense of purpose and dedication according to the voice of our conscience, which to me, is really the whispering of the Almighty in our ears. I often wonder, with sincere modesty, how close to divinity we are when the authority of dispensing justice and order is vested in us, mere human beings. But contemplate the awesome burden of it, the crushing weight it imposes on our shoulders, for it has within itself the twin dangers of pride and the possibility of being corrupted. We must feel privileged that that honour has been given us and we must feel fear lest we should betray the trust vested in us. For who can forget Lord Acton’s words when he said it pithily: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

There is a conundrum here: authority is exercised with an obvious display of its power and pelf. From ancient ages, the exercise of power was accompanied by the pomp and circumstance attached to that awesome authority. When it was the priests and religious personages who dispensed justice, it was accompanied by conch shells and the ringing of bells, smoking joss sticks, the sacrifice before the altar and the beating of drums. When power shifted to temporal authorities, it was enforced through sword and punishment rendered through royal decree, through royal durbars and torture chambers. Symbol and awe were an essential part of the dispensation of justice. When, centuries later, power was exercised by the representatives of the people, elected through universal suffrage, we did not forget to retain the vestiges of those old symbols that sustained authority so many years ago. Now it is the white car and the red light, the peons and the plush office rooms, the two cell phones (not one), the array of files on our table, the guard walking two steps behind us wherever we go, or even the arrogant wave of the hand or the sneer on the face.

So then the question to ask is can we exercise the authority vested in us for the betterment of our fellows without being swept away by the trappings of power. What then happens to humility, next only perhaps to godliness, an essential non sequitur without which the exercise of power in this day and age would be nothing more than what the kings and queens of yore once displayed. Where do we find the balance required that helps us to maintain both our effectiveness in what we do without being corrupted by the obvious and apparent display of power? How does one learn to humble oneself if we are to learn to do God's bidding in the discharge of our duties? How do we find our true north in the vast desert of our duties and responsibilities? How can we be of service to the people we serve without that consciousness that we have the awesome authority to make or mar their lives. How can we just serve and serve justly?

As St Augustine said "Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility." As someone once put it: Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less. In fact, John Ruskin said : "The first test of a truly great man is his humility. By humility I don't mean doubt of his powers or hesitation in speaking his opinion, but merely an understanding of the relationship of what he can say and what he can do." "If thou desire the love of God and man, be humble, for the proud heart, as it loves none but itself, is beloved of none but itself. Humility enforces where neither virtue, nor strength, nor reason can prevail.” Rabindranath Tagore once said: “We come nearest to the great when we are great in humility.”

I do ask myself whether the gift of humility comes to us at birth, embedded into the chromosomes that make up our DNA. Or do we absorb it in the early values we learn while growing up as children in the family we belong to. Or is it long experience and wise judgment that leads us to it as we go along learning from the experiences of life itself? Or is it but an artifice, a clever disguise we don so as to appear meek and docile while wearing the mantle of office? And can we ever know which of these options represents the real us? Never mind, that is a puzzle we shall leave for another day.

So now, let us question ourselves on the precepts that espouse humility while we do our god-given duties with all the courage and devotion that we can give to it.
a: do we really listen when people come to us with their problems, or are we but composing our features into the mere posture of listening, while our mind is on other things?
b: do we not think that we know better than the poor supplicating unfortunate before us, for we are better educated, are better clothed, are multi-lingual and have the weight to get impossible things done at the snap of our fingers?
c: when countless people come to meet us day after day in an endless stream, are we able to follow up the grievances of each of them to the logical end, or are they but countless papers on the file, easily forgotten and discarded?
d: Are we bothered and agitated, pained and in agony when we see obvious injustices meted out on the poor and the washed, or do we just shrug them off and look elsewhere, for we have better things to do?
e: do we not all think that the weight of the years of experience under our belt is enough to help us find all the answers, for who can possibly know more than us in the job we do?

I could go on and on; but the message is quite clear to me. We are inordinately proud, irretrievably smug and unforgivably unconcerned. And truly, we know not what we crimes we commit in our ignorance. So the more I think of it, the more I am certain that we have much to learn and to unlearn, to do and to undo, to remember and to forget. What is that ideal middle path we have to tread so that we do our job and not be swept away by its power and authority? There are no answers, but then the question will always plague me, I am sure.
(Source : C.K. Mathew, Chief Secretary, Rajasthan : blog - 
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