We live in a time where competing, succeeding, and winning the applause and admiration of others has become all-consuming. Modern culture teaches us to promote and glorify ourselves as we compete out in the marketplace, hardly ever receiving any encouragement to be humble and unpretentious.
Life has not always been this way. In his outstanding book; The Road to Character, David Brooks confronts this transformation that has taken place in our country.
On Sunday evenings my local NPR station rebroadcasts old radio programs. A few years ago I was driving home and heard a program called “Command Performance“, which was a variety show that went out to the troops during World War II. The episode I happened to hear was broadcast the day after V-J Day, on August 15, 1945.
The episode featured some of the era’s biggest celebrities: Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, and many others. But the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self-effacement and humility. The Allies had just completed one of the noblest military victories in human history. And yet there was no chest beating. Nobody was erecting triumphal arches.
“Well, it looks like this is it,” the host, Bing Crosby, opened. “What can you say at a time like this? You can’t throw your skimmer in the air. That’s for run-of-the-mill holidays. I guess all anybody can do is thank God it’s over.” The mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens came on and sang a solemn version of “Ave Maria,” and then Crosby came back on to summarize the mood: “Today, though, our deep-down feeling is one of humility.”
That sentiment was repeated throughout the broadcast. The actor Burgess Meredith read a passage written by Ernie Pyle, the war correspondent. Pyle had been killed just a few months before, but he had written an article anticipating what victory would mean: “We won this war because our men are brave and because of many other things—because of Russia, England, and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature’s materials. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other people. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than proud.”
I arrived home before the program was over and listened to that radio show in my driveway for a time. Then I went inside and turned on a football game. A quarterback threw a short pass to a wide receiver, who was tackled almost immediately for a two-yard gain. The defensive player did what all professional athletes do these days in moments of personal accomplishments. He did a self-puffing victory dance, as the camera lingered.
It occurred to me that I had just watched more self-celebration after a two-yard gain than I had heard after the United States won World War II.
This incident triggered something in the mind of David Brooks, as he recognized that this shift in reality symbolized a shift in our own culture, a shift from a culture that was once humble and grateful to a culture of arrogance and self-promotion. It made him realize that this “was like a doorway into the different ways it is possible to live in this world.”
This realization led Brooks into researching and collecting data that proves we have experienced a broad shift from a culture of humility to what he calls the culture “of the Big Me.” He says that we were once a country that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that now encourages people to see themselves as “the center of the universe.”
This in fact may explain the current state of our nation.