Paper tiger, burning bright, turns to ashes, then to night.
Few of us are lucky enough to be humiliated on a world stage. Most of us never achieve enough power or clout for anyone to purposefully snub us while the world watches. All of us, if we ever push ourselves too far, will be humiliated. The trick is to learn from it and not try to sweep it under the rug.
Last weekend, we hosted about 50 people for a Labor Day potluck. The food was one big draw: Laotians, Chinese, Indians and Vietnamese all brought delicacies from their regions. I could have experienced humiliation trying to compete with those expert cooks, but I didn’t try.
Instead, my job was to set up and encourage all the games. One big hit was mah jongg, with the Chinese teaching us strategy and the slightly different rules they use in various regions. I had a good teacher at the beginning, but then, left to my own devices, made serious public blunders, but persisted and learned. Failure can be wonderful if you learn from it. If you never try, you will never fail, but you will never learn.
My main job was setting up the outside games. Croquet, jarts, horseshoes, and kiddie basketball were easy to set up. Badminton required a net and that meant sturdy posts, so I brought steel posts and a post driver. These posts are designed so they don’t pull out of the ground easily. That makes them great as supports for a fence or net, but hard to pull out. Driving them into the hard ground was tough. Pulling them out at the end of the day was where the humiliation came in.
I tried all my tricks of 55 years dealing with steel posts; the post would not come out. I got it as far as the middle of the flange, but couldn’t pull it up the remaining couple of feet. Several years of chair sitting had occurred since I’d last pulled out a steel post.
So, with all the party-goers milling around, I’m wrestling with a steel post and being defeated. Failing. But refusing to give up. While I rested after one failed attempt, two younger, stronger Chinese teamed up to pull it out for me. It wasn’t a total humiliation because even the two of them did have some difficulty pulling it up.
A couple of days before my latest public failure, the United States’ President got a little more public humiliation at the hands of more muscular Chinese. When he arrived in Hangzhou for a Group of 20 summit, the Chinese didn’t provide a rolling staircase. They did provide red carpeted staircases for the leaders of Japan, India, Russia, South Korea, Brazil and Britain, as they had for the US President in 2014.
A former ambassador to China told the Guardian: “These things do not happen by mistake. It’s a snub. It’s a way of saying: ‘You know, you’re not that special to us.’ It’s part of the new Chinese arrogance. It’s part of stirring up Chinese nationalism. It’s part of saying: ‘China stands up to the superpower.’”
As with any failure or humiliation, the value is in what we learn. Some want to forget the snub, attribute it to unintended glitches. Some Chinese, instead of apologizing for the mistake, see the real problem as arrogance of Americans. Many in the US seem to agree. Maybe America does need to be taken down a notch or two. If it really was an intended snub, one thing’s for sure: ignoring it will only encourage more severe insults in the future.
Planned humiliation is an attempt to humble someone and therefore increase the status of the one who plans the humiliation. When you seek to be humble, planned humiliation can have the opposite effect. The humble can be exalted and the proud excoriated. Unfortunately the humility espoused by the ancient Chinese religion of Taoism and by Christianity is a tactic, not a goal, for many leaders today.
More prescient leaders realize humility is not the opposite of strength. Humility is a complementary aspect of strength in a resilient system. Both are required for a system to be resilient. The danger is when either comes to dominate a system or society. Especially where humility is a virtue, strength must be maintained. Continuing to ignore and even apologize for public humiliation can mean that the big and powerful one is really just a paper tiger. It awaits only the right match to go up in flames.
Or, if the insulted one does still have some strength and wisdom, he can just ignore the pesky upstart for the time being and resolve to rebuild his strength so that he does not fail when failure would mean much more than a trifling public humiliation.
That’s my take on the weekend. I need to get back in the gym or, better, back to digging in the garden, back to chopping wood. Then maybe I won’t have to rely on two young Chinese to pull up the badminton post.
If a system fails, but its failure is part of a larger system which learns from and adapts to the failure, then lack of resilience of the component system can increase resilience of the larger system. For more on failure, humility and resilience of systems see Sources of Resilience–free and online with just a couple of clicks.