Brain Surgeons and Humility
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. (Proverbs 12:15)
In his book When Breath Becomes Air, the late physician Paul Kalanithi describes his training in the high-pressure world of neurosurgery. In one scene, he shares the story of a fellow surgeon who could not bear to face his faults:
Not all residents could stand the pressure. One was simply unable to accept blame or responsibility. He was a talented surgeon, but he could not admit when he’d made a mistake. I sat with him one day in the lounge as he begged me to help him save his career.
“All you have to do,” I said, “is look me in the eye and say ‘I’m sorry. What happened was my fault, and I won’t let it happen again.’”
“But it was the nurse who – “
“No. You have to be able to say it and mean it. Try again.”
“But – “
“No. Say it.”
This went on for an hour before I knew he was doomed.
When Proverbs says that “the way of a fool is right in his own eyes” it’s important to remember that “a fool” is not necessarily someone who is intellectually deficient. In this case, Kalanithi was talking to a fellow brain surgeon, a man who obviously must have had great mental gifts to enter that field. But this man was a fool nonetheless, in the sense that he could not accept correction – even to the point of risking his career.
In psychology this is called the “fundamental attribution error.” It’s the tendency human beings have to view our own decisions more favorably than we deserve and to view other people’s decisions less favorably than they deserve. For instance, if a man gets cut off in traffic he is likely to assume that the other driver is a reckless jerk; if the situation is reversed and the man cuts someone else off, then he would be much likelier to rationalize it as a necessary maneuver than consider himself the reckless jerk.
But where human nature justifies itself through endless, exhausting, and often dishonest excuses, the gospel gives us a way out. The Christian message is that we should expect to find deficiencies in our character that require the grace of God to heal us. Healing comes in the forms of forgiveness for our sins, instruction for our ignorance, and trusted friends who can help reform our lives. Receiving this grace is not a sign of weakness but of wisdom – only a fool would reject this path of growing in character.
Living with this sort of humility – the willingness to confess our sins to others, the posture of receiving correction – is easier when we recall Jesus’ double-edged promise: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). That is, your destiny as a human being depends on whether you’re open to God working on your problems.
So today, ask God to exalt your life by humbling it; ask that He will put wise people around you to give godly advice; ask for discernment to know how and when to implement that advice; and ask for the courage to receive correction when needed.
Lord Jesus, I want to be the person you’ve created me to be. Thank you for your humility in coming to the earth as our Savior. Help me walk in that humility today, knowing that the lowly road leads to glory, and honest confession to everlasting joy. In Your Name, Amen.