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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Culture Vulture: Where is Humility?

"Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." I have been governed by this these words, particularly after I brushed up on the fundamentals of conflict resolution: make observations, not judgments. However, at this moment, I just could not take my eyes off the prevailing "behavioral pattern" of the present crop of Tibetan youth--particularly with respect to the presentation of self to others.

As the saying goes, "you can take Tibetans out of Tibet, but you cannot take Tibet out of Tibetans." The Tibetan struggle as such will last until the last man standing. The real concern therefore may be the question of sustaining the Tibetan(ess) of the Tibetan people. In fact, the Tibetan struggle for freedom is often defined as a struggle to retain the Tibetan identity.

If one were to probe further, one may conclude that the mainstay of a culture is not its external manifestations--say, food, dress, customs, etc. The essence of a culture is in its visceral composition--like the spiritual and ethical (moral) values that are inherited from the forebears. And if the Tibetan cultural identity is to be sustained, the values that are supposed to be embedded in our genes, the values that supposedly shape our actions--deeds, words, omissions and desires--must survive in situ.

My contention, or observation, is therefore how the youth today, including folks of my age, are inculcating or coping with those values. A conspicuous element in the pantheon of Tibetan values could be the emphasis that we have traditionally put on the virtue of humility. This is evident from the rich array of sayings common in Tibetan parlance: a fruit-bearing tree is always hunched; the radiance of gold buried beneath the earth, lights the sky above, and so on.

A typical example could be how our elders usually give a talk--they always begin with a bit of self-deprecation: "I am not qualified enough to speak on this topic. My knowledge and experience are very limited. However, now that so and so has commanded me to speak on this matter, I shall venture some of my thoughts, hoping that they may have some use for you", or something to that effect.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, expressions of humility--like "I wouldn't know (much)", or "My knowledge is limited", etc.--appear to have become passé for the larger part of youth today, including those of my generation. Such decorum is treated as outlandish, totally out of sync with the newfound society—or a chore dismissed as the lingering residual of a bygone era when "public speaking was a refined art that demanded close attention to the laws of rhetoric and the niceties of delivery."

The young and upcoming are not without compelling reasons for this shortage of humility. To begin with, they are eking their living out in a world where there is no such thing as a free lunch--a world of one-upmanship, in which only those who are competent in marketing themselves are entitled to the highest of perks--a world where the operating principle is often not the survival of the fittest, but that of the loudest. It thus necessitates a lot of pruning and posturing. People as such take great pains in perfecting their skills of exuding an aura of all-knowing erudition, beginning with that trademark "I-know-what-I-am-doing" face. The compunction of maintaining a false pretence, I guess, never weighs heavily upon us.

Returning to how the grownups began their talks by playing themselves down, I caught hold of a book, The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking. The blurb on its cover says, "The most brilliant book of its kind"--reprinted 50 times, translated into 11 languages. Expounding on how to express yourself logically, persuasively and convincingly, the author, Dale Carnegie, noted that, "The surest way to antagonize an audience is to indicate that you consider yourself above them...On the other hand, modesty inspires confidence and goodwill. You can be modest without being apologetic. Your audience will like and respect you for suggesting your limitations as long as you show you are determined to do your best."

The author cites Edmund S. Muskie, then US Senator from Maine, as demonstrating this in a speech. "I approach my assignment this morning with many doubts," he began. "In the first place, I am conscious of the professional qualification of this audience, and question the wisdom of exposing my poor talents to your critical view...Facing these doubts, I feel very much like the mosquito who found himself unexpectedly in a nudist colony. I don't know where to begin." Indeed, writes Carnegie, one of the best ways for a speaker to endear himself to the audience is to play himself down. So much for our elders being outlandish and out of sync!

If this article sounds too preachy, or prissy for that matter, it is not meant to be. I have made a habit out of always learning my life lessons the harder way. The lesson on modesty, which I had while in high school, was particularly the hardest of all--at times when my lack of humility begins to turn into hubris, the incident churns up in my mind scene by scene, making me cringe with embarrassment. That year, after the winter tests, I was home on vacation. My test performance was good, in fact so good that I went cock-a-hoop, literally jumping for joy. And I seldom missed a chance to brag about it before my friends and family. One day, tired perhaps of my infantile braggadocio, my elder brother asked me,

"So, how are you in math?"

"First class," I bragged--I was the math topper.

"How much did you score?"

"30," I said.

The fact that I was the topper was ridiculously meaningless, for just as the rest of the class, I had failed that test. To pass a test one must score at least 33 out of 100 points. But that minute detail never bothered me. All I cared for was "I am the topper." Then, just as my elation had subsided, my brother told me what was to be indelibly etched in my memory--"You see Dhundup, there are three kinds of first class: The first class of the first class; the first class of the second class; and the first class of the third class. And you my friend, are the first class of the third class." Period!

Dhondup Gyalpo

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