In his 1850 short story, “The Great Stone Face,” Nathaniel Hawthorne described the legend of the Old Man of the Mountain: “At some future day, a child should be born hereabouts, who was destined to become the greatest and noblest personage of his time, and whose countenance, in manhood, should bear an exact resemblance to the Great Stone Face.” In this short story, immortalizing this geological structure in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a series of high profile figures is each declared to be the front runner, until the local citizen, Ernest, determines that the resemblance is lacking.
Mr. Gathergold turns out to be a selfish miser. Old Blood-and-Thunder has no particular flaw to disqualify him, yet falls short in his failure to “appear in the character of a man of peace, uttering wisdom, and doing good.” The town was hopeful that the politician, Old Stony Phiz would fulfill the legend, but his “life, with all its high performances, was vague and empty, because no high purpose had endowed it with reality.”
In the end the reader discovers that Ernest, having lived as a local contributing member of the community, has himself been, all along, the fulfillment of the legend. His had been “a life of good deeds and holy love … pearls, pure and rich.” Although the reader discovers the identity of the fulfillment of the legend, Ernest himself is unable to see that conclusion, “still hoping that some wiser and better man than himself would by and by appear.” Ernest is not only the local embodiment of the Old Man of the Mountain, he is also the personification of humility.
When my colleagues and I conducted some research several years ago on forgiveness, one of the potential predictor variables we sought to investigate was this construct of humility. Individuals who are able to accurately recognize their human condition and propensity to fail, fall short, and sin against others, might be more likely to forgive when others fail, and then to seek to restore their relationships.
Measuring humility, however, was a hurdle that we never satisfactorily resolved. Those who are the humblest describe themselves in average terms. Those who are truly humble are also humble in their humility. Perhaps only the proud are so bold as to describe themselves as being humble.
Christ, of course, personified humility. He lived and offered his life in service to others. In America, we have taken that construct and developed the label of “public servant,” suggesting that we have politicians who are willing to invest themselves in the public good, without the desire for the mega-million dollar salaries and bonuses they could earn on Wall Street. Recent posts estimating the net worth of the 2016 presidential candidates, however, suggest that it might be time to discard the concept of the “public servant.”
In 2003 the Old Man of the Mountain collapsed in the White Mountains. This could be seen as a symbolic systemic collapse of humility and genuine public service. Instead, we need to see the geological collapse as emblematic of the need for each one of us to step forward and do our part in public service. Ernest represents the “greatest and noblest personage of his time,” not because of his wealth, his position in government, or his status in the community. Rather, Ernest is our role model because he invested his life in “good deeds and holy love,” while still recognizing the need for “some wiser and better man than himself.”
Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.