“We are living in humbling times. People are humbled all over the place”

We are living in humbling times. People are humbled all over the place. Lately it’s pro forma — possibly even mandatory — for politicians, athletes, celebrities and other public figures to be vocally and vigorously humbled by every honor awarded, prize won, job offered, record broken, pound lost, shout-out received, “like” copped and thumb upped.

There’s a level on which this is reasonable. It’s not the safest time to be a public figure. We’ve reached the point where we run the risk of coming across as monstrously arrogant if we’re insufficiently humbled by even the smallest accomplishment. Voters, fans, followers, whatever energetic mob lifted you to your present position: These people can transform into nasty trolls at even the slightest hint of entitlement on your part, unleashing every kind of public violence in response. To pronounce yourself humbled is to announce your greatness but also to hedge against any backlash to it. Asked what it felt like to cast a presidential vote for herself, for instance, Hillary Clinton replied that it was a “humbling experience.” This is a politician’s answer, though you can also hear it as a woman’s. Something like: “I’m not unqualified, I’m not uppity, please don’t kill me.”

There are exceptions, of course. For the rare public figure or celebrity whose cultivated arrogance and lofty untouchability intersect in just the right ways, it’s still possible to be merely “honored” and “surprised,” in old-school acknowledgment of deserved recognition. (Think of Bob Dylan, who was unable to travel to Stockholm to pick up his Nobel Prize in person because of undisclosed pre-existing commitments.) But it’s tricky. We live in a rabidly anti-elitist society that is also in slack-jawed, slavish thrall to elites, and it’s no joke to try to maintain homeostasis between “Look at me!” and “Who, me?”

For most of us, the choice is simple: We can either let our triumphs and random strokes of luck go unremarked upon, or we can bow our heads and declare ourselves humbled by our great fortune.

Carina Chocano, “Lying Low”, The New York Times Magazine (29 January 2017), 14.