When I was fishing on the East and Gulf Coasts a long time ago – actually a damn long time ago – there was a saying that wandered the docks. When boats tied up together in a port the guys working on the boats would talk to each other, on the dock or aboard boats or in the nearby barroom, catch up on scuttlebutt and gossip, tell lies. There was a phrase that floated around about some captains – actually at times more than some captains – and that phrase was, “He’s a screamer.” This meant that this person could not give an order without screaming the words, shouting, and often it seemed the case that no order was properly given unless it included at least two graphic insults.

There were of course more captains, usually many more captains, who were not screamers, they were level-headed men (and these days they include many women too) who had the crew’s respect, who rarely had to give orders because the crew knew what was expected and jumped to.

If you were lucky enough to be on a boat with a “good captain, meaning, someone who was all right to work for, this usually meant you were also on a boat that was well maintained, that carried the proper survival gear, where things usually worked, and where you made money. The crew members often became friends. I can name many boats which were based in New Bedford which had the same crew for two or three decades, they fished together, hunted deer together, and their captains, I am almost sure, were never screamers.

I worked for both types, and let me tell you, working for a screamer was dangerous, difficult, and downright scary at timers. The biggest issue was that screamers could not keep crew, they either fired those they did not like or drove the crew away, which meant that those of us who remained had to work twice as hard training the new guys every trip as well as doing the work. Boats with screamers in the wheelhouse gathered foc’sle lawyers down below, and disgruntled complainers, and laggards and bums.

I always figured the good captains remembered where they came from, how hard it was to learn the ropes, and had the good sense to admit when they didn’t know something, and were unafraid to ask. The good captains explained what was needed and gave others the respect to get it done, and in my experience if you treat someone as if they will do the job well, they usually do, whereas if you hover and pester the result is terrible.

The good captains were humble. They knew they did not know everything. They honored the weather and the force of the ocean. They supported the others around them and the others around them supported them. They went to work and brought back fish and an income, and they did it without breaking the crew.

Screamers? Never humble. Always trying to be on top, and better than. Never listen. Shout and scream and get angry easily. Have these ideas they have come up with which they declare must be true and refuse to admit they make no sense.

“Watch out for him, he’s a screamer.”

It feels, these days, the screamers gave taken over damn near everything, shouting their point of view and beliefs everywhere, insulting others, not listening, and most of all not learning or facing facts. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone in the wheelhouse who assumed everyone on the boat was equally intent on making an income and coming home safe. That’s the case, or was, in the fishing industry, anyway.

It seems to me that the reason it feels like we have screamers everywhere – in politics, in the media, on school playgrounds – must have something to do with forgetting that we cannot have a community unless people listen and speak carefully, meaning, are humble with themselves and others. At sea, in the microcosm world that was limited to the boat, a screamer was toxic, dangerous, and inflected the entire world. In ancient times such a person was driven from the tribe, shunned, left to wander alone. Maybe we could use a little more of that now, because with all the screaming going on, people lose sight of what they don’t know, what they need too learn, and what they should be doing to keep the community strong.

Some thoughts on humility

It seems to me, at least based on the research I did about what we know and can speculate about early human groups, that while life back in the era long before farming and towns and then cities it is likely that small groups could find sufficient food – especially if living along a seashore – without working every hour of every day, leaving time for play, stories, art, and wonder, it is also the case that during nearly all of those years – any time longer than 12,000 years ago when all the great animals went extinct – humans shared their homes with large, dangerous, and carnivorous beasts: dire wolves, saber tooth cats, huge jackals and hyenas, short face bear, and cave lions, suggesting also that those small human groups had to find safe refuges to raise their young and often – perhaps nearly always – were wiped out, to a person. In that time humans were not the apex predator as they later became. Plus, and this seems often overlooked, there were huge climate shifts, glaciations, meteors striking the earth, eruptions, floods, fires, earthquakes, and tsunamis, all bringing devastation, change, and death – natural forces too great to imagine or comprehend.

It is no wonder, then, such groups were surely conservative, careful, and cautious about their actions and decisions, and even more the case that they must have been truly humble, as in, accepting their smallness in the world around them, their weakness, their ignorance about what was going on.

In fact I would imagine that, along with the ability to tell stories and carry on culture and learning, the need for humility in all things was paramount for survival. Some have written that humility – the placing of one self subordinate to other forces, the awareness of lack of knowledge and understanding, and the value of memory and ancient truth – is what creates wisdom. It is no wonder, then, that elders and ancient members of a group or tribe were revered, just as, because of the precariousness of life, attitudes were formed with a view three, five, even ten generations down the road. I have tried in my Strong Heart Series to describe such a possible culture, which still contains all the human behaviors of greed, lust, envy, and so on, and sought in my tales to suggest that the required humility of those early ages must be brought forward to the present day as a means to offset many current toxic behaviors and values.

As long as there has been writing there have been people writing of humility, in different guises, and with different definitions. Anna Katherina Schaeffer, PhD, provides an excellent summary of the history of humility:

Humility is a core value in many ancient ethical and theological frameworks. The Confucian form of humility, for example, is profoundly other oriented in spirit, consistently valuing the social good over the satisfaction of our individual aspirations. In this ancient Chinese form, humility can significantly enhance social cohesion and our sense of belonging.

The Greek philosopher Socrates held that wisdom is, above all, knowing what we don’t know. He taught an intellectual form of humility that freely acknowledges the gaps in our knowledge and that humbly seeks to address our blind spots.

Aristotle understood humility as a moral virtue, sandwiched between the vices of arrogance and moral weakness. Like Socrates, he believed that humility must include accurate self-knowledge and a generous acknowledgment of the qualities of others that avoids distortion and extremes.

An accurate understanding of our strengths and weaknesses is still a core feature of current definitions of humility.
Christian humility is linked to self-abnegation, shame, and sin and may therefore not be to everyone’s taste. However, the ancient theologians can still help us to avoid arrogance and pretentiousness. They remind us that we are members of a species that is far from perfect and urge us to be mindful of the limited role we each have to play in the fate of humanity as a whole.

Through the centuries, the importance of humility as a moral character virtue has faded. However, psychological studies of humility have surged in the last two decades (Worthington, Davis, & Hook, 2017). This renewed interest in humility is, in no small part, a counter-reaction to what the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (2009), have described as our “age of entitlement.

Today, self-realization and enhancing our self-worth are our highest aspirations. Precisely because it provides an antidote to many worrying tendencies of our age, such as arrogance, greed, and self-centeredness (all of which also have devastating consequences for our democracies and our planet), humility is experiencing a much-needed revival.



The Dog Days of Summer

The first step in becoming humble, in recognizing what we don’t know and cannot control, is seeing our own true hand in a situation. Until we do that, solutions cannot be found. These are the dog days of summer…..

Fire, everywhere. Greece, the United States, Canada, Siberia, Australia. I don’t know about other places, but a strong argument can be made that the terrible fires in the U.S. are largely caused by decades of fire suppression (Smokey the Bear) allowing the build up of huge masses of tinder, not to mention building neighborhoods in areas sure to burn. Yes, the beetle infestation is a factor, and hot and dry summers, but we own a big part of this.

Covid Delta wave: We had it licked in the late spring, or so it seemed. Vaccines (three of them) that worked and many people wearing masks in crowded spaces. Now, three months later, it’s almost as bad as before, this time nearly all people who have not yet been vaccinated. How can it be that we have become stupid enough to politicize the health benefits of masks and vaccines, to somehow make this an issue of freedom instead of health? We have entirely forgotten the world before penicillin and vaccines, when life was cheap, many died, and people grasped at the chance to take a shot and protect themselves. They would look at us today and laugh. How did we beat polio? Everyone was vaccinated, end of story. Good God. Yet here we are with millions among us refusing to face the situation, in denial, pretending the virus itself is fake.

Afghanistan: Twenty years of war and the army we built and funded collapsed in two weeks. Somehow our initial limited mission to get Bin Laden and Al Queda morphed into something else, nation building. And then, when the Iraq invasion propaganda was in full swing, just before the invasion, millions around the world marched against war. No media mentions that today, those millions who were right, back then, and still are. Our history of invading other countries to remake them in some idealized democratic system is a terrible history, and we have learned nothing, it seems. Two Presidents could not end what Bush began. Now Biden has ended it and the media and pundits are howling. Tough break for the war industry, for sure, but a blessing to any parent of any kid in the services. And who do the media bring on to discuss Afghanistan? The very same people who howled for invading Iraq, remaking the Middle East, nearly all in some way connected to military contractors and think tanks.

A humble person faces facts, admits error, and learns from mistakes. Repeating the same mistake expecting a different outcome is a good definition of insanity. It seems we are close. We have been allowing the forests to fill with tinder for two or three generations. In the face of compelling evidence we still, or many among us, refuse to take simple, tested, proven health steps to defeat this virus. Despite, in my lifetime, having now twice invaded and tried to remake another nation, stayed way too long, and been entirely defeated, there are many in the Washington D.C. blob seemingly arguing that leaving Afghanistan is a mistake, and it seems these people are the ones filling all the air time.

I don’t see our leaders in the forestry industry howling and demanding funds to clear the tinder from forests, to allow controlled regular burns, to prevent construction in fire prone areas. I do see some among us demanding vaccine and mask requirements, but this could have been so easily handled had the last President said everyone needs a shot and a mask, again and again, starting in early 2020, but he did not and here we are. Finally a President came before the public and said Afghanistan was lost, and to protect American lives we were leaving, and the leaving would be difficult and messy, and the buck stops with him as to the outcome, and he has been vilified. Yet, to date, he seems the first among us to show some humility.

I hope we see more.

Humility (2)

During the last, say 150 years there has been unrelenting and consistent technological change in nearly all areas – medicine, communications, travel, energy, the list is seemingly endless. It is almost unbelievable, actually. Somehow there seems to have been a parallel assumption that we humans have also changed greatly, maybe because we think we must have changed to bring forth all these marvels, and maybe, even more, many of us think that with all these new wonderful tools the measure of people, their character and behavior, must be changing rapidly as well. There has been, for at least six or seven generations, a steady belief in inevitable progress in all areas, including the character and behavior of humans.

This is a huge, huge mistake, in my opinion, because human nature hasn’t changed despite all these technological breakthroughs. The evidence of our own eyes and memories, for those of us who have been around for eight or nine decades, is exactly the opposite, as is the historical record – we humans have been bad to each other, always and forever.

Go way back, Im mean, way way back, before farming, before towns and cities, the time of great ice and terrible animals, and humans barely hanging on in remote safe places. When a group invaded another group’s territory, back then, it seems they captured the women and children but killed off all the men, all of them, so there would not be retribution. Surely humans then, and in the years since, and today, are selfish, vengeful, hateful, lustful, cruel, possessive acquisitive, tyrants, murderers, just as humans are loving, caring, friendly, empathetic, self sacrificing, and noble.

Look over the last 150 years – many huge wars, hundreds of millions dead, maybe 70 million in the two World Wars alone. Millions more killed with famine, whether in China, Russia, India, Asia, or elsewhere. Millions more lost to disease. Remember that a century ago only smallpox had been defeated, there remained the scourge of measles, mumps, whooping cough, scarlet fever, polio, rickets, cholera, not to mention millions more lost to raw poverty. Yes, it is true that today millions of people are living far better than their forebears, but does this mean human nature has changed? That the legacy of grim news that has underpinned all the technological triumphs will somehow miraculously end?

I think not. Somewhere in the rush to greatness, and the ability to build and invent great things, we seem to have entirely lost awareness that we are both good and evil, flawed and noble, and any excess – ANY – promises difficulty, death, destruction. Nowadays we may look back and consider earlier people cautious, conservative in behavior, keeping their heads down, but maybe the truth of the matter was they were raised humble, cautious, well aware of their own dark side, and the dark sides of others. Throughout all of history the battles have remained the same – on the one had wresting survival from a hostile world, which we humans successfully did such that the world seems now to be ours, but on the other hand always, since the beginning, struggling with the much larger danger – ourselves, our conflicts and fights, and these days our narrative driven views that only we are right and all others not only flawed but even evil.

In ancient times, when we were not the apex predator, the world was above us, more powerful, and we were careful, humble, cautious, because we had to be. Now we rule the world, but it has not been the world that has brought evil, it is ourselves, plain as day, brought forth in the urgency of ideology and zealotry and certain-ness, and further complicated because the public megaphones respond to only anger, rage, froth. My sense is the greater mass of us are sick of all of it, and want to just get on with our lives, as best we can, and all of us know that only through humility will come the wisdom to regain some kind of balance.

Dory Men

Denny was born up Pubnico way in eighteen and ninety two,

In nineteen eleven to Boston he came, a dory man tried and true.

He fished from a dory for thirty two years till the war put an end to the trade

Moved to Chatham and fished alongshore in good weather, not much, but a living he made,

At age seventy-two he fetched up on the beach in a shack in the woods by the Bay,

Rigged gear for the fleet and cleared our bad snarls, recoiled in a tight perfect lay.

A master, was Denny, rerigging our gear, each bundle a near work of art,

With his help all that summer we landed huge trips and a half share we left in his cart.

Denny was tiny, a lone quiet man, no family he had of we knew,

We’d leave him some beer and groceries to hand in the winter when gear work was few.

Then one day next winter Denny was sick, in his shack stone cold and in pain,

To a hospital bed in Hyannis he went not far from our boat on the bay.

We’d travel to see him, kids twenty five years, he’s lost in the bed, thin and pale,

Hated that hospital food, he did, wouldn’t eat and was wasting away.

So we went to the fish store and bought us some haddock which we cooked on our boat at the dock,

Wrapped it in foil and raced to the hospital, still hot when he reached for his fork.

Oh that fish he did eat, every bit, every bite, and a smile we’d see in his eyes,

So each day we’d cook and bring him his lunch, hear his stories which Denny called lies.

Later he moved to an old people’s home in South Chatham for hospice care,

The food there was better, but Denny was failing, companionship was all he could share.

And always with Denny, those last weeks he had, three men sat with him for hours,

Old dory mates all, telling tales of the days they all shared in their youth and their power,

Harold and Peter and Edward their names, first sailing then steaming offshore,

From their dories through years of weather and waves, saw men lost in the fog evermore.

I can hear those four men, all old, one quite ill, in that pale late afternoon light,

Their memories and laughter of days now long gone when from dories they worked with such pride.

Denny came to Boston a century ago, a dory man he and his mates,

I was lucky to know him, see his art working gear, he was small but to us he was great.

His lies now all lost, the memories too, but I hold in my heart that rare sight,

Four dory men true, gathered together, keeping real their lost way of life.

Now Denny’s long gone, it’s nigh forty years since the kid in me brought gear to his shack,

And just as his memories are lost now forever mine soon will fade in the black.

When you see an old fisherman, hands like burled wood, skin pale and eyes watery and dim,

Unshaven, clothes rumpled, slumped deep in a chair, never judge there’s no glory in him,

His story not written, his memories mist, his whole way of life but a dream,

Whaler, salt banker, dory man he, now one with the unchanging sea.