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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

When humility reigns over bluster

Humility is a good word to think about

Humility is a good word to think about as the world grapples with the coronavirus. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/marekuliasz

The etymology of the word “humility” follows an interesting trail back through time. It ends at the Latin word humus, which can be translated as “earth” and now is associated by gardeners with some organic matter found in soil. So “humility” carries with it a sense of being grounded, literally and metaphorically. It should be no surprise that its etymological family includes the word “humble.”

Humility is a good word to think about as the world grapples with the coronavirus.

The fight has been humbling, perhaps most so for those who don’t recognize that they’ve been humbled. Bluster and bravado are useless in this fight. The coronavirus doesn’t respect them, or respond to them, or even recognize them. It doesn’t sneer at them, but it makes you pay for them every time. It just does its work, silently, following its DNA, while some humans offer false facts, empty promises, unfounded optimism, pointed fingers and rage.

There’s too much we don’t know, too much that is baffling, too much we’re still learning about this disease not to be humbled by it. Ignorance is supposed to be humbling, not emboldening. Our doctors, nurses and scientists get that. They know what they’re up against. Our leaders need to get it. So do we.

If bluster and bravado are tools with no function in this war, humility does have a purpose. It lies in the admission by Albert Einstein that a genius is someone who admits that he or she knows nothing, and in Abraham Lincoln’s reported awareness that as he managed a wholly different form of war he often knew that his own wisdom and that of those around him “seemed insufficient for that day.” When you have humility, you seek out what you don’t know.

So while some leaders issue self-congratulatory proclamations of success already achieved, our medical professionals stretch the limits of energy, patience and sanity — adjusting treatments, following trends and patterns, collecting data and comparing notes as they hunt for answers. About why the virus seems to accelerate in some victims in the second week. About the way it attacks more than the respiratory system — the heart, the kidneys, the nervous system, the liver, the brain. About the blood clots that form and the frostbite-like toe rashes. About the inexplicable ability of victims to function with absurdly low oxygen levels. About victims apparently on the road to recovery who suddenly crash and are gone within hours. About whether the virus can stay suspended in the air and be transmitted as an aerosol.

And as the search for truth grinds on, leaders announce comebacks despite evidence and medical advice that the timing is not right, and they boast that the virus will be behind us by summer.

Humility comes from understanding that some countries successful in combating the virus are starting to open up and starting to re-encounter rising infections. Humility comes from understanding that the lessons learned by hospitals, governments, and equipment manufacturers from the swine flu pandemic in 2009-10 were discarded over time, increasing our vulnerability to the next pandemic that was sure to come. Humility is realizing that no one nation or group of researchers has all the answers, such that scientists in the United States and China are working together on treatments and vaccines but not on mutual blame.

This fight will be won by those who remain grounded, not those engaged in rash flights of fancy. Humility is the only wisdom we can hope to acquire, wrote T.S. Eliot, and humility is endless.

If we seek and accept it.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.