From Exceptionalism to Humility

Rankings in the graphic are in comparison to other advanced developed countries

The myth of American Exceptionalism and the belief of innate American Goodness that comes with it are incredibly damaging when it comes to bringing positive systemic change that will improve our society and make it more just for all people. It leads us to cling to the illusion that we are number one, when we clearly and demonstrably are not.

The self delusional idea that we are exceptional as compared to all other countries and cultures in the world hinders us from cultivating the humility and collective self circumspection that are needed to recognize our systemic shortcomings and bring about positive societal transformation. It keeps us from seeing clearly our shortcomings and correcting them in ways that are not just superficial but rather are deep and lasting.

If U.S. Americans could get over our American exceptionalism nonsense and have some intellectual humility, we would see how much we have to learn from other societies and cultures and we might begin to make much needed improvements in the way we live and function together.

Rather than burying our heads in the sand of American exceptionalism, if the United States as a country had the intellectual humility required to become a truly good and great society, we would look at countries like Sweden and Costa Rica as models for ecological sustainability, Finland as a model for public education and overall happiness, Norway as a model for a vibrant democracy and press freedom, New Zealand as a model for anti-corruption, Netherlands as a model for religious freedom, well-being of women, and racial equality, Canada as a model for LGBTQ+ rights, Singapore as a model for infrastructure, Iceland as a model for non-violence, and South Korea as a model for healthcare.

Imagine how much we could learn from from these other societies if we looked to them with an open mind and a willingness to learn from our mistakes and to learn from their successes rather than clinging to views like those expressed by Sean Hannity who once said that “The U.S. is the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the earth.” It seems that many people believe if we say things like this loud enough and proud enough that no one will be able to contest that we are the best.

We must ask ourselves, “Why do so many of us believe that the United States is the best country in the world when all of the evidence shows quite clearly that we are not?” What are the roots of our lack of humility as a nation? I agree with Jo Luehmann, host of the podcast The Living Room, who sees our lack of humility as rooted in our history of colonialism and the colonial mind that has developed as a result of this history.

Luehmann writes, “The colonial mind says ‘I don’t understand this, therefore it is wrong.’ And then demands others adapt to it. The liberated mind says ‘I don’t understand this, I wonder what I can learn.’ And then adapts to others. Shrinking vs. expanding (Twitter, 7/14/21).

If we as a society want to be both good and great, then we will have to shake loose of the prideful colonial mindset that is at the core of American exceptionalism. If we want to become good and great as a society, we will need to humble ourselves and realize that greatness will not happen through the way so many of us are currently headed. Our greatness as a society will not come from the way of turning our backs on the immigrant and the refugee, the way of separating parents from their children, the way of not hearing those who have been harmed physically and emotionally, the way of increasing inequality between the rich and the poor, the way of increasing injustices against people of color, the way of decreasing access to the healing made possible by affordable healthcare, the way of discriminating against those who orient themselves to religion differently than we do, the way of discriminating against our LGBTQIA+ siblings, the way of removing reproductive choice, or the way of increasing our exploitation and harm of the earth. This is not the way to greatness or goodness for us; this is the way of hubris and hate, the way of injustice and oppression, the way that religious teachers like Jesus, who so many in our society claim to follow, would often simply refer to as sin.

If we are to become good, compassionate, and just as members of a beloved community; our greatness will come from the power of humility; it will come from the way of love of all our neighbors and all our enemies, the way of humility as members of a common humanity and a shared ecological community, the way of working for justice with the poor and oppressed, the way of bringing affordable healing and care for all people, the way of welcoming the stranger and the refugee, the way of reuniting families instead of tearing them apart, the way of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, the way of providing homes for the homeless, the way of peacemaking and not hate-making or fear-making, the way of opening our hearts and our homes to people of different religions and no religion, the way of listening to and respecting women, the way in which the lives of people of color matter just as much as the lives of white people, the way of restorative justice rather than retribution, the way in which all persons are treated equally as persons of sacred worth regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and the way of repairing and regenerating the earth as we care for our ecological community.

We must escape the hubris of the colonial mind that attempts to force everyone to be like us and instead embrace the humility of an open mind that seeks the very best ways to live and love into beloved community.

This past week we were given some images that ought to remind us that humility is the proper response to the world and to the universe in which we live and move and have our being. The first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, a telescope multiple times more powerful than any previous telescope, are a witness to the awesome wonder that we see in the universe as well as a reminder that we still have so much to learn, not only about the universe as a whole, but also about ourselves and our place within it. As U.S. Americans, we ought not only have humility in the face of the grandeur of the cosmos; we should also have humility in our finite lives of human community together and not squander our opportunity to bring more love and justice into this world and make our society a better place in which to live.

May we hear and follow the wisdom of the great scientist and environmentalist Rachel Carson who said these words: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction” (Speech accepting the John Burroughs Medal). Wonder and humility, not hubris and exceptionalism, are the way forward towards a more perfect Union with liberty and justice for all.

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