When I was growing up, among the sharpest criticisms in the old-school repertoire was to accuse someone of “putting on airs.”
That may sound mild, but, like a good lemon chess pie, the sweet tone with which it was delivered merely lulled your defenses ahead of the eye-watering tartness. Putting on airs encompassed a multitude of sins with a lack of humility and discretion foundational to most.
Making sure everyone knew how much your latest car cost – putting on airs.
Wearing a new church dress with coordinating hat four Sundays in a row – putting on airs.
Bragging about your promotion, the increased salary, and all the people who were passed over with more seniority – putting on airs.
By today’s standards, those are charmingly quaint. We have transcended the mere failure to be sufficiently humble and catapulted into full-on arrogance.
Purchasing test scores and other fake qualifications so that your child can attend the college of your choice.
Buying property in communities, left faded by municipal neglect, in order to build houses unattainable by anyone vested in the neighborhood.
Treating elected office as if it places public servants above the law or outside the minimal expectation that they will tell the truth and conduct themselves with basic decency.
Lord, save us from this time of airiness when we so desperately need to be grounded.
Often, those engaged in aggrandizement are trying to fill something empty within, ranging from over-compensating for mild insecurity to feeding poisonous narcissism; a broad spectrum of decreasingly humble-brags falls in between. At some point, most of us need to feel better about ourselves, and that can translate into making others feel less than.
One solution that nudges us toward humility and empathy is reorienting toward a model of servant leadership, embracing the notion of power with rather than power over, and working for the greater good of all rather than that of a few individuals. The idea that one’s personal standing in society means more than the well-being of society falls away.
Servant leadership lifts up compassion and collaboration while minimizing ego. In its truest form, it is the antithesis of selfishness. The local sanctuary movement, rooted in faith communities and their commitment to the most vulnerable among us, is one way our neighbors are living as servant leaders right now.
“The whole idea of the sanctuary movement is that the people who are in sanctuary are the ones who lead the movement. The churches are there to offer the safety of their building and the resources, but the decisions are made by the people who are most affected,” said Jennie Belle, a Durham-based faith organizer for Church World Service who works with coalitions of churches nationwide around sanctuary.
“It’s an act of radical hospitality that they’re giving sanctuary, but they are also stepping back to let the people who are in sanctuary make their own decisions,” she said.
Working from a place of servant leadership can slow the process, but it values everyone’s contribution to the discussion. And in the times when a quick, singular decision is required, rootedness in servant leadership can inform those choices, too. In the absence of ego and in the fullness of empathy, the need to impress others and deceive ourselves fades.
We no longer need to put on airs when we are comfortable with who we are and respectful of those around us because our motivation and choices come from a better place.
Community columnist Aleta Payne of Cary is executive director of Johnson Service Corps, a community of young adults committed to social justice and spiritual growth.