American culture today (and throughout much of its history) has made a virtue of holding nothing back. Occasionally this is an act of democracy, for keeping secret what shouldn't be is a bad thing, and keeping power in the hands of a few rather than sharing it broadly is another.
But by holding nothing back, I am talking about a cultural tendency to extravaganza, extremism, and violence; to an economic tendency to spend as much as possible, to keep interest rates near zero, to seek growth for growth's sake; to a political tendency to let the winner take all, to propose grandiose responses, to police much of the world; to a personal tendency to want more, to work more, to imagine that doing more is the answer to any challenge.
When the economy is poor, or the future uncertain, this holding nothing back is tinged with desperation, as if throwing everything we have at it must certainly be the solution to the crisis before us. It makes our culture mean; not solely in the sense of being unkind (though that is certainly the case when a person says whatever is on their mind about an opponent), but also in the sense of being sordid or crass.
For an illustration of what I mean, go see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Get there early to watch the previews. You will see trailers for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, John Carter, and Battleship, among others. These are all essentially the same movie, with only variations in locale, accent, and the faces of the bad guys accounting for their different names. In each, some big organization or network hatches an evil conspiracy to destroy the world. The people you would expect to stop this sort of conspiracy are either involved or so incompetent that a small band of fighters are the only ones who can stop it. Fortunately the fighters are strong, violent, smart, and possessed of massive destructive capacities (or able to steal them), and so in the end the good guys win by holding nothing back. No act of violence, no trickery, no weapon is too much. When, in Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson uses a howitzer to save Holmes' life by toppling a light tower which guards an arsenal built to plunge the world into total war, you know that you long ago escaped the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and landed right in America, 2011.
So, now, in praise of holding something back. Whatever you think of Christianity today, the origin story, celebrated during the same season as the release of blockbuster action films, is all about holding something back. God holds back, placing the hopes and fears of all the years, in an infant born in modest circumstances to modest people, in a backwater town in a backwater portion of the Roman empire. The story of Jesus' life is similarly modest, with his service and teachings being directed at the lowly, and with him regularly reticent when asked about his power and purpose. It is telling that the temptations Jesus overcomes are of wanting it all--his immediate desired gratified, control of all earthly power and finally the power of God. He resists them by holding back what he already knows about himself--that he is god.
The story of Buddha is similarly modest. He could not become enlightened as an extremist, be it one of wealth or one of asceticism. But his modesty and endurance ultimately led him to awaken, after which modesty remained the hallmark of his preaching and his community of followers. No great buildings for him, no self-aggrandizement (in fact, no self at all). Distrust of dogma and solutions. Just consistency, temperance, and the openness to learning that comes from humility.
We can learn from these stories that holding something back is at the basis of human obligation one to another. To hold something back is to not say the thing that is true but hurtful, it is to ponder things in your heart, it is to have enough in reserve (be it money, or time, or energy, or love) to be able to feed a person unexpectedly hungry, to welcome strangers, to adjust course in light of new insights, to give a bit more when it is needed, to take less than is offered, to demand less than you might wish, to learn rather than simply to know.
Holding something back, (call it what you will--modesty, temperance, prudence, humility, moderation) is a personal virtue. It seems to be an imperative if someone wishes to live satisfied and get to know the transcendent better. It is an educational virtue, for it puts learning not certainty at the heart of schooling. And it is also a civic virtue, lying at the center of people's ability to govern themselves, to solve problems, to imagine a community built on something more than geography, wealth, and power, to trust others.
We could use more of holding back.
Headline: Letter From Liberia
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