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  • Writer's pictureNick McDonald

On Practicing Humility

This weekend I watched "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood", the dramatized account of journalist Lloyd Vogel's experience interviewing Mr. Rogers. I was skeptical of it, because...Tom Hanks in aging makeup. But as a testament to Hanks' acting prowess, I quickly forgot about the makeup and ended up immersed in the person he had become: Mr. Rogers himself.

The movie is good, not great. It can be hokey and contrived, and the acting surrounding Hanks feels a little overplayed. But Hanks' depiction of Mr. Rogers really steals the show, so much so that I felt the movie had made in imprint on me for days after I'd watched it.

The main question the film raises is: "Why did/do millions of people watch Mr. Rogers?" And, "Is it for real?" The striking thing about Hanks' Mr. Rogers is that his appeal isn't to humor, creativity or dazzling intelligence. The appeal of Mr. Rogers is humility.

That might seem implausible, until we think about how spectacular - and rare - true humility is. It's not self-effacement. We don't see Hanks' Rogers downplaying his accomplishments or poo-pooing compliments. Even that, we realize, would feel too self-focused. Rather, we see a man who is constantly directing the conversation away from himself toward something else: the wonder at the person he's speaking to, his curiosity about the object before him, his gratitude for the world around him.

It's been said that C.S. lewis once defined the humble person as someone who "doesn't think less of himself, but thinks of himself less." That's actually a Rick Warren quote, and I don't think C.S. Lewis would approve (since he didn't approve of humility being defined in terms of the absence of pride). Rogers' humility is self-forgetful, it's true, but it's to a purpose. He forgets himself in order to be attentive: He is, at all times, filled with whoever he is with, whatever he's paying attention to, whatever space he's occupying. Humility in Rogers is the ability to be radically present.

As I thought about this, I realized that the truly humble people I know all have this kind of attentiveness in common. They are curious, thankful, warm, because they have space in them for others, and the world around them. I found this encouraging, because, if I'm being honest, I tend to think of humility as a genetic trait, a product of circumstance or temperament. But what if humility was a practice - the practice of forgetting ourselves in order to be radically attentive to God, His world, His people?

There's a telling line in the film, where the Lloyd is ogling at Rogers' ability to love others, standing alongside Rogers' wife, Joanne. Lloyd asks: "How does it feel to be married to a living saint?" Joanne rejects the term, noting that what he's become isn't "unattainable". She goes on: "He does things every day that help to ground him. He reads scripture. Swims laps. Prays for people by name. Writes letters, hundreds of them. He's been doing that since I met him."

This captured what I'd been suspecting throughout the film. To say humility is something we either "have or don't" is too easy. Rather, humility takes work. It's something we can start doing today, by beginning to forget ourselves in order to be radically attentive to God's word, the words and feelings of our neighbor, the wonderful world around us, and even our emotional state.

That, I think, was what was so attractive about Mr. Rogers: He always had room for you.

I'm not now, but I want to be that kind of neighbor.

The Bard Owl Weekly:

What to Browse-

I'm reviving this brilliant article by Andrew Sullivan in light of his looming retirement from New York Magazine. I can't think of anything more apropros to the cultural moment, especially in light of the similarly themed withdrawal of Bari Weiss from the New York Times. At the same time, I think we need to be cautious about all this talk of "Leftist Marxism" and "Totalitarianism". As Osita Nwanevu notes in this longform article, this is adopting the liberal tactic of name-calling that is only going to make the rift wider. (on WHY name-calling is becoming so hot, I was really helped by my friend Nathanael's summary of Richard Rorty, who's philosophy is driving the tone of the left in disturbing ways).

What to Listen to-

I was so deeply encouraged by this short interview with the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders on ESPN Daily, who is outspoken about his faith while embodying the kind of humble tone our culture needs to hear on race issues. I'm a converted fanboy, now - looking forward to rooting for them in August. Since I'm a Pistons fan.

What to Read-

My brother hooked me on "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat", Samin Nosrat's book on how-to-cook-without recipes. I was skeptical of the claim, honestly, but as I'm slowly reading through, I'm already finding myself thinking more creatively and competently in the kitchen. She's a brilliant writer and teacher, and learned from the best: Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, french culinary school...It really does feel like sitting down with a master teacher and chef, and being taught the secrets of the kitchen in entertaining, simple tidbits. If you're doing a lot of quarantine cooking these days, this book will up your game and make the kitchen a lot more fun.

What to Watch-

"It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood", obviously. I can't think of a better film to watch right now.

A Quote to Ponder-

"And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

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