11/29/2016 03:03 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2017

Modesty And Power

You can say a lot about President-elect Donald Trump. You can try not to say too much that would demean him in hopes he'll come to his senses, govern rationally on issues as important as climate change and be the Donald Trump who praised Hillary Clinton in 2008 in modest tones. But one comes to the conclusion that he is, in a potentially dangerous way, immodest.

Ursula K. Le Guin writes, "In the political arena, modesty has usually been rather a pose than a position. For most politicians, exhibitionism is the norm, sometimes with an effort to ground self-praise on an ethical basis, often showing only a seamless disregard for realistic self-judgment." She continues later, on how we can respond to powerful pride: "Modesty's weak point is that it may permit arrogance in others. Its strong point is that in the long run arrogance doesn't fool it."

I received an email about my letter to Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner's office saying,

"Dear David:

I appreciate you taking the time to reach out to my office about the Clean Power Plan in Illinois. My staff is reviewing your message. Please know I value your opinion and thank you for sharing it with me. Hearing from people in Illinois gives me a better idea of what is impacting local communities across the state. Knowing those opinions helps me make decisions for you in Springfield."

Helps me make better decisions for you. If this probably not clearly intentioned wording doesn't explain the problem of government, it at least speaks to the need to continue to press for expanded democracy. And it smacks of the immodest role those in power feel they have earned, instead of the humbling acceptance of the voice of the people.

Albert Einstein said, "Try not to become a person of success, but rather try to become a person of value." How is it that a person who had as much success as Einstein--indeed his ideas about things like gravitational waves are still having success--came to conclude that there is something more important than mere success, influence or power?

Modesty is an important value, one that often comes about when we are assured that we can move forward without constantly reassessing our worthiness. In this sense, does faith matter? Does a certain optimism need to be felt, that when we leap the net will appear?

I think labels like "theist," "agnostic," and "atheist" are unimportant. No matter what we ascribe to whatever we like, we still move in our idiosyncratic ways. It is what we aspire to that is more important than the labels we use to describe our action in the world. I have met very nice atheists and very hypocritical theists.

In his work on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Steven Hayes researches what helps people who are struggling most. When we're struggling, we are fooled by the symmetry of good and bad thoughts and feelings. We try to move toward the good but are dragged down by its self-undermining nature. It is only when we orient toward our values--which transcend current conditions--and accept whatever thoughts and feelings may come that we can become functional again, motivated again. One has to be somewhat modest to learn to give up the struggle and orient to something transcendent, whether grand or ordinary.

Understanding such a counterintuitive need for values promotes modesty as well as many other chief virtues. (The cycle becomes reinforcing.) We don't know everything, though we try our best to map it. Abraham Lincoln said, "Don't worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition." It is the sense that you are already a success by living by your values that will hopefully guide the Trump administration.