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Of Talent, Arrogance & Modesty

by I.J. SINGH

 

 

 


As you peruse my ruminations today, both the title and the content may rub many the wrong way. That’s not the intent. Some matters are universal and no one remains immune for long.

I often think that we are born with a debt on our shoulders. Our legacy has offerings that are both good and bad. We curse the bad - from the weather and environmental pollution to disease and war that ravage our existence. Petty injustices are legion. That is why some sage recognized that life isn’t fair. It never was nor will it ever be. We come with an endless list of ills and plaints - our own individual ones as well as the societal Pandora’s Box - as we enter our mortal existence and begin our earthly journey.

We also inherit the good that life offers us but didn’t come from our dint. Just think of the opportunities and technology that life offers today - products of previous generations - that make life the rich presence that it is. These we take for granted. Sometimes life’s rewards are blindly and amply bestowed and then we come to expect them as entitlements. We pout; we moan and groan when we are deprived of them.

We often think that we deserve to be born with a silver spoon in our mouth; let the wooden ladle be for those who are clearly lesser mortals.

Hubris? We dismiss the charge. How could that be if rewards of life are deserved? Surely, we deserve the best.

We all have some abilities, however limited; talents that are useful and cannot be denied; ways to leave the world a better place than we came into. And that, of course, is the only way to lessen the burden of debt that we started with in life.

It is from talent, usefully and methodically exercised, that a sense of self emerges and develops. But surfeit of talent can morph into a sense of exceptionalism. This is not so miraculous or unusual a transformation. And then we are in the quicksand of believing that the rules don’t apply to us. One can find claims of exceptionalism by individuals, communities, religions, as well as nations.

There is no delivery from this mire until and unless we recognize the beginning and the end of our talents. Ergo, most spiritual movements teach that we regard our special abilities and the talents that we have as gifts of grace; God given, not earned. 

All human potential movements (whether religions or not) teach the existence and acceptance of human frailty and fallibility, but teaching is one thing while learning remains a very different kettle of fish.

More often than not, the problem lies in recognizing and acknowledging that in our multi-layered life the foundational element that is talent comes like manna from heaven; the layer of arrogance topping the cake is a product of our own efforts. 

The work of learning this idea requires perseverance and effort but it is where attitude makes the critical difference. Learning this lesson requires that we see similar (not always the same) talent in others, too. The abilities of others may be entirely different from ours but they do exist and deserve opportunity, recognition and reward just as much as ours do.

But our inability to see this in others is legion. Such issues arise but a zillion times in the best of us. Why do we remain so blind to others?

Sir Isaac Newton was a genius and a deeply religious man whose solid grounding in humility emerges unmistakably in his oft-quoted words, “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then, finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell, whilst the great ocean lay undiscovered before me.” 

And also, “If I have been able to see further it was because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”

Yet, he, too, got caught up in enduring disputes on plagiarism and credit for his work with Hooke until the latter’s death in 1703 and with Leibniz on the development of Calculus until this foe’s death in 1713.

The justly celebrated wartime Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, with all his bravado and arrogance, would never have willingly presided over the dissolution of the British Empire. It took Clement Attlee to do so - a modest man that Churchill quipped had much to be modest about.

From the myriad examples in Sikh history, I present three that rightfully enjoy iconic status in Sikhism: Kapur Singh, a caretaker of horses in the 18th century who was honored with a fiefdom and principality - a land grant - and yet remained untouched by it; he continued to serve as he had always done.

Vir Singh, the 18th century mystic who has left us a legacy of a lifetime’s work in beautiful prose and captivating poetry that brings Sikh teachings to life; yet he remained unaffected by even an iota of hubris.

There also was another Kapur Singh in the 20th century, an unmatched gifted scholar and an original mind, whose analytical writings remain unparalleled, but modesty or humility were never his benchmarks.

Each of us has enough talent in us to handsomely and unendingly fan the flames of our ego and feed our burgeoning arrogance.  But we also have enough to be modest about; there is no reason to want to deny or bury that.   

We fail to see that one may be a great cook while another becomes a passionate poet or an artist. A wonderful scientist may yet have a God-given tin ear.  A talented mathematician may be totally dismissive of poetry.  A genius in some matters may be absolutely tone deaf in others. The pursuit of plumbing is not necessarily inferior to the pursuit of philosophy. If that were the case, a society would have neither good plumbers nor good philosophers; for such a society neither its pipes nor its ideas will hold water. 

The pursuit of dedication and excellence matters, especially when coupled with a hefty dose of humility - an understanding of our puny place in the greater scheme of things.

I see that my words are also, in some ways, a defense of the ordinary.

And then there may be many of us who can do many things reasonably well and competently but none that particularly stands out or will ever set the world on fire. Forget not that without this category of the commonplace, life may well nigh be impossible. However, it is the extraordinary talent that only a few have that guarantees life’s quality and progress.

This reminds me of John Milton’s lament when he seemingly had lost his ability to put his talent for poesy to use; he finally ended his sonnet with the profound thought that “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Yet, we are humans all. Our families and society have repeatedly drummed into our heads that each of us is special, even unique. Indeed we are.  We need this self assurance for it is the foundation of our sense of self.

It seems to me that any talent that we have - and we surely have some - feeds that sense of self. But the constant drumbeat can and does blind us to the talents and uniqueness of others or to the many, often unspoken, limitations of our own special gifts. 

Without the sense of self a talent does not bloom. Without talent the sense of self is crushed. The result of talent unchecked: an inevitable hubris.

We see this all around us. From individuals who are megalomaniacs to human development movements that insist that theirs is the only way; that they are the only chosen people and all else is false that must perish or suffer. 

Isn’t that a sense of entitlement run amuck?  What then to do?

The essence of humility or modesty is not at all to devalue oneself but it is essentially not to diminish others. This is what we routinely overlook in ritual pronouncements of our own humility.

Keep in mind that talent unchecked distorts a sense of self. Then we label it pride or ego - sins that need to be checked or ousted, or else they will surely demean and diminish the talent and its manifestation. Talent and self-esteem feed each other but when that sense of self becomes pride then it weakens and kills the talent.

I offer you a universal law of human existence:

Talent begets success; from success comes power; power breeds arrogance; finally arrogance turns blindly dictatorial and diminishes talent. 

A linear connection! A feedback circuit or loop! What a vicious cycle we make, like a dog chasing its own tail in a downward-directed spiral. 

There is a defined self-serving process at work here. Just look at many of our gurdwara managers and political leaders. They start well but soon enough their self-centered focus wins out and arrogance sprouts its ugly head. The next step is but natural - the idea that “What I can do none other can or should even be allowed to try. None can equal my achievement or vision and I have divine right to rule and impose it.”  

Don’t limit this to our gurdwaras alone. Whether on the smallest local scale of family or as global reality the results of such self-serving arrogance are there for all to see - and suffer.

From a long unending list, I offer you a few recent examples of leaders, once admired and later derided, that bear testimony to this universal law: Josef Stalin, Muammar Qaddafi, Indira Gandhi, Hosni Mubarak, and Vladimir Putin. Each was celebrated not so long ago, until they turned arrogant and dictatorial. The last on the list, Putin now triggers the strongest protests. Most have received their just desserts but new ones continue to sprout across the world to emulate or outdo the tyrants of the past.

Guru Granth reminds us: "Haumai diragh rog hai daru bhi is mahi,"  that ego is the mortal malady but the panacea lies within the disease [p 466].

Says Nanak, the Founding-Guru of Sikhism: Hum nahi changay bura nahi koe," [GGS:728] exhorting us to not be obsessed by our own virtues or the shortcomings of others.

 

January 21, 2012

ijsingh99@gmail.com

 

 

Conversation about this article

1: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), January 21, 2012, 7:09 AM.

Fantastic article from which we can learn so much.

2: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 21, 2012, 9:58 AM.

Modesty is an area we all need to work on, especially those of us who consider ourselves "successful".

3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), January 21, 2012, 12:23 PM.

Guru Granth Sahib has answers for all shades of maladies. "Har kay logaa mai ta-o mat kaa bhoraa" [GGS:692.6] - "O people of the Lord, I am just a simple-minded fool".

4: Harinder (Uttar Pradesh, India), January 21, 2012, 12:26 PM.

All things in life shall go through the cycles of birth, growth and death. No one is immune to this law of life: Be it the arrogant and powerful; the godlike and saints; heavenly objects like the sun and moon; etc.

5: Jaswinder Singh (Brier, Washington, U.S.A.), January 21, 2012, 4:16 PM.

Thank you for a few such motis of a great mala. Loved reading it.

6: Kanwarjeet Singh (Franklin Park, New Jersey, U.S.A.), January 22, 2012, 8:45 AM.

Excellent article, I.J. Singh ji. Sometimes we all need to be brought back to earth to be taught modesty.

7: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada.), January 22, 2012, 10:15 AM.

Every person is in a mental world of his own. Every man entirely differs from every other in his mode of thinking, temperament, taste, mentality, physical characteristics, etc. At the same time, haumai is the mother of anger and negative emotions. Anger grows fast and turns violent from within, oftentimes turns into arrogance or even tyranny. Gurbani helps us understand it all and teaches us how to deal with these challenges.

8: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), January 22, 2012, 9:41 PM.

To believe that good and bad comes from a person is in fact the root of all evil. All that happens to the individuals in this world is in accordance with Wahehuru's Hukam. Guru Amardas says: "burra bhallaa kich aapas tay jaani-aa ay-ee sagal vikaaraa/ ih furmaa-i-aa khasam kaa ho-aa vartai ih sansaaraa" [GGS:993]. The universal laws of human existence are the illusions created by Waheguru to deal with situations arising in this world. And this creates duality which limits a person's vision and potential for growth, invariably leading to a shortcut analysis of right and wrong or good and evil.

9: Baljit Singh Pelia (Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.), January 23, 2012, 9:59 AM.

A very thought provoking essay. Perhaps that is why spirituality as well as checks and balances and term limits are so important. Failure of entities, be it a small family unit or a nation and even the world, is assured at the hands of individuals that rise to power unrestrained. India is being ruled by the fourth generation of the same family and many of its states are ruled similarly by a single for decades. Unchecked, these dictatorial dynasties use the military and paramilitary to suppress it's own people and slow the advances of the nation while denying success to the people who have true capabilities.

10: R.S. Minhas (Millburn, New Jersey, U.S.A.), January 24, 2012, 7:15 AM.

In the vastness of desolate empty space, life on earth is a miracle - an extremely low probability event. Being born human is like winning a lottery. Then cribbing about chump change due to our mindless self absorptions does not make sense. The combined probability of us sharing the same time in our journeys is an even more rare event. After all this, giving others a hard time due to ignorance is our celestial misfortune. But we have no right to complain as we had no hand in this creation. A particular individual may have a long life, but our time together is short. Better to make the best of it. Overall, such a nice piece. "... The layer of arrogance topping the cake is a product of our own efforts ..." was funny.

11: Aryeh Leib (Israel), January 25, 2012, 1:54 AM.

As Sangat Singh ji so aptly quotes, "Har kay logaa mai ta-o mat kaa bhoraa" [GGS:692.6] - "O people of the Lord, I am just a simple-minded fool". And even this status is not one of my own making, but the tools given to me by the Guru, based on what I need to accomplish in this lifetime. The authors of the Guru Granth state again and again that they themselves lack the power to do anything, unless the Guru shows them favor. Logically speaking, with what arrogance do I praise myself for accomplishments that I lack the power to effect, using talents that I did nothing to earn?

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