Observations on "Give in Take" in Six Reflections on Radical Humility
Rebekah Modrak and Jamie Vander Broek
Ideas of “give and take” are threaded through these reflections on Radical Humility. The six contributors note that humility finds form in the act of attending to others. The post-performance snack that Ruth Nicole Brown shared with a friend in a moment of “you, before me”; the gifting of sugars and oxygens by trees to other organisms, as described by the plant biologist Beronda Montgomery reflecting on Ruth Nicole Brown’s essay; Abraham Lincoln’s relinquishing ideological stances to include Frederick Douglass in the room, and then his willingness to shift standards and policies, an exchange that was cited in Charles Blow’s essay and noted by Todd Shaw; and the truth spoken to power in acts of, what Morgan Shipley calls, humility-informed “altruistic mindfulness.”
Legacy is at the core of this give and take, and several of the writers invoke relationships with knowledgeable elders. From their own home lives, they relate stories of warm, empathetic figures who lived with an overflowing generosity of spirit. This filling-up helped steel the writers for the harshness of the world, instilling them with the sense that the home environment was a safe place to grow. In several of the reflections, the writers evoke the women who passed on virtues such as humility. Shaw’s grandmother cautioned against boastfulness. A weekly question from Shipley’s grandmother inspired good deeds. These memories of women’s words and values spoken in the home are inspired by Brown’s essay and recollections of her Aunt Dottie as generous and loving.
Looking at these reflections through our own intersectional identities, as white, middle-class women working in academia with working-class family roots, it’s as if we’re continually adjusting the focus on a set of binoculars. A click in one direction, and we see through the lens of academia: a place for growth of the mind, not typically described with words like loving or kindness. A click in the other direction, and we can authentically understand perspectives as mothers and daughters. One click further, however, towards the experiences of people of color, and we become outsiders. We appreciate that essays such as Brown’s refocused us towards the home, that Kevin Hamilton found wisdom in the forest, and that even an essay located in academia took us to the democratic space of the library.
These modest spaces and humble scales are more likely, it seems, to involve giving something up for the taking. The essayists reflecting on Radical Humility make a point of the powerful scale of smallness in a car, a home, the base of a tree, and a library, where every book is valued, even those never checked out or opened. Balanced perspectives emerge, they seem to say, when we cease to center ourselves in the universe and accept our tiny position in the world. This scale of smallness is positive and deeply developed, in contrast to the smallness that some are made to feel when, as Valencia notes, humility is employed falsely as a weapon to induce subordination. An American culture built upon aggression, bluster, consumption, and competition has no respect for diminutiveness. When it seems necessary to compete at scales of big talk, big expert, and big house, the small scale of humility is that much more radical.
In addition to noting the humble quality of the spaces in which these exchanges take place, these essayists point to the smallness of actions. Shaw observes that Lincoln’s casual wave of inclusion to his friend Douglass and his dismissal of White House police was the slightest of gestures, though its resonance against racist social norms of the time was immense. A small thing with a big impact. The simple question that Shipley’s grandmother asked of the young not-yet-Dr. Shipley had “transformative” power in learning to quiet his ego. And Van Wieren notes the decaying matter under our feet that dies “to provide the structure in which new forms take life,” an excerpt from Kevin Hamilton’s Radical Humility essay (101). Reading these reflections, we note the power of simple gestures. The apologies, the acts of listening, the grace of withholding a judgment.
Woven through these reflections, either explicitly or implicitly, is a comparison between academia’s approach to the world—the Socratic method and expert opinions—and their corollaries in the home: intuition and hard-won domestic wisdom. Nimot Ogunfemi’s reaction to Socrates, in particular, reminds us of men who act like an interviewer as they talk to you. There is a certain arrogance to this behavior; it can feel intimidating to be interrogated relentlessly as if the person being questioned is not human but merely a wall to doggedly bounce one's ball against, an invasive game that is especially aggressive to those in marginalized positions. Adopting this posture doesn’t consider one’s conversation partner or the possibility of a joint endeavor, with each reaching halfway to get to a new point.
At the same time, we’re not certain that Socrates fits this description. After all, he was killed for asking questions. Asking good questions requires you to be attentive to someone else’s thoughts; to shut out your own agendas and distractions in order to enter their orbit and become flooded with their thinking; and then to summon the mental capacity to ask the right question, the question that gets to their heart of their cares. We’ve watched colleagues ask questions of students that are really declarations of their own knowledge. We’ve found ourselves unable to ask questions of our children because we weren’t paying sufficient attention to the sounds that had come out of their mouths. Is Socrates inherently generous then, and could there be “give and take” in academia?
These reflections make us wonder how to grow Aunt Dottie’s butterfly garden in the classes we teach; how to aid students in supporting the learning of their peers rather than focusing solely on their own success, and how to ensure that the Frederick Douglass-of-each-moment is escorted into the room and welcomed instead of relegated to the outskirts. True listening and humility are at the root of these goals, with great impact in the lives of others. The reflections here remind us that the path to achieving “give and take” can be through seemingly small actions that take place in any space.