Le Juif Errant


For the end of a week in remembrance of the Holocaust, I am offering up this post of mine from a couple of years ago.

the-wandering-jew-1925 Le Juif Errant, Chagall, 1925

When I was a boy, I developed an aversion to the art of Marc Chagall.  Why?  Because some of his work was used to illustrate a catechism we were tortured with in St. Philip Neri School.  I had no way of knowing at the time that St. Philip himself, a notorious iconoclast, would probably have flung the damned book out the window if we found it distracting.  After all, when one of his monks came rushing to him all aglow with the news that the Virgin Mary had visited with him while he prayed, he advised him to spit in her face the next time she disturbed his meditation.  Had I known, I might still be among the faithful, but…

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What does it mean when someone says they are humbled by an experience?  Taken literally, it would mean they are made to feel more humble, which is to say less proud.  And yet, I would venture to say that most of us have never heard anyone use the expression in a context in which that makes sense, inasmuch it is almost universally used  on the occasion of receiving  an award. Usually, the humbling is accompanied by an expression of pride and gratitude.  The higher the honor, apparently, the more humbling the experience and the greater the pride.

There is only one sense in which winning an award can be a truly humbling experience, and that is if it is undeserved.  Do you feel that your accomplishments are trivial compared to the work of other recipients?  Was the award completely unexpected because you think of yourself as just getting the job done in a workmanlike way, nothing special?  Do you feel that if the award committee looked back over your record they’d have to reconsider choosing to honor you?  Is the contribution of others unfairly minimized by their exclusion?

These are all perfectly normal reactions, whether valid or not.  They are also utterly inconsistent with pride, and the kind of gratitude that would be appropriate in this context smacks of favoritism and ulterior motivation.

If you truly feel humbled, the most honorable thing to do is to turn down the award and explain your reasons.  If, after mulling things over, you decide you deserve the award after all, accept it with grace and pride, never mind the false humility.  If you still feel the award is undeserved, but it would create awkwardness for the committee to turn it down, well, you’re in a fine pickle, aren’t you?

It’s ironic, to say the least, that when someone actually does turn down an award, they are almost always criticized for being too full of themselves.

In truth, I suspect that most of the time it is simply formulaic, the right thing to say in the same way that people say “pleased to meet you,” or “sorry for your loss.”

But I can’t help it.  It’s my duty as a curmudgeon to harp on these things.