Neil Armstrong was my hero not because he walked on the moon but because he seldom spoke about walking on the moon, or anything else to do with himself. Declining to call attention to his improbable achievements was one of Armstrong's improbable achievements, an act of genuine humility. C.S. Lewis wrote: "True humility is not thinking less of yourself. It's thinking of yourself less."
Thinking of oneself less may be life's greatest challenge. You are you, after all. You're bound to pop into your thoughts from time to time. Even for the Earthbound and couch-bound masses, we men of modest achievement, humility is a rare virtue. ("A modest man," as Winston Churchill called Clement Atlee. "But then he has so much to be modest about.") For the most conspicuously successful among us -- major league shortstops, NFL quarterbacks, Olympians with 18 gold medals -- humility is more than challenging. It's almost a logistical impossibility.
Think about it. Everywhere LeBron James goes, he sees his image reflected back -- on billboards, in magazines, on TV screens. It takes a powerful will to resist self-infatuation. When Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution, lured the Narcissus to a pool of water, the handsome hunter became transfixed by his own reflection and died there, unable to look away. Michael Phelps deserves credit for avoiding the same fate.
Others don't avoid that fate, but then a lack of humility is something we love about our athletes, even as we complain about it. In calling himself The Greatest Of All Time, Muhammad Ali was not merely right, he was right on time, ushering in -- at the end of the 1960s -- what would become the Me Decade.
That label sounds quaint in 2012, when our national surplus of self-esteem is evident everywhere and technology allows each of us to publicly air our inner monologue -- as I'm doing here and now. But it doesn't aid us in thinking about ourselves less. On the contrary.
Every time an athlete notifies Twitter that he is working hard away from the spotlight, he shines a little light on that unlit corner, thus negating his own premise. The phrase "unsung hero" is similarly self-negating, for every hero described as "unsung" has, by definition, just been sung. Likewise, every athlete who is said to visit hospitals behind the scenes, away from the cameras, without seeking credit has -- in the telling of that anecdote -- just been given the credit he doesn't seek or get.
The phrase "rise and grind" is particularly insipid. The user is congratulating himself on his own (self-proclaimed) hard work. "Rise and grind" should only be used by those who really do grind for a living: Pole dancers, perhaps, and the occasional optician.
There are plenty of athletes who remain humble while inescapably aware of their own success. In basketball, Chris Paul and Derrick Rose come immediately to mind. Beyond his status as the best player in the world's most popular sport, Lionel Messi doesn't seek attention, and doesn't have to. When his rival Cristiano Ronaldo was asked last spring by CNN if he tired of comparisons with Messi, the Real Madrid star -- Narcissus and Nemesis in one -- replied: "You cannot compare a Ferrari and a Porsche." To the question of who was better, Ronaldo said with a laugh, "I think it is me."
But isn't that we want him to say? There's nothing wrong with the Ravens' Joe Flacco saying (as he did last spring) that he thinks he's the best quarterback in the NFL. Injected with truth serum, Flacco probably wouldn't say it and probably doesn't believe it, except as a spoken affirmation, a confidence builder, a self-help mantra -- all of which makes it even less wrong. He's simply trying to get better.
Or perhaps he really does believe it. Thinking less of ourselves is hardly an option in an age when every kid gets a trophy. A woman in North Royalton, Ohio, was recently arrested after allegedly entering an apartment drunk at 3:30 a.m. while the residents slept. When one of them woke to ask the woman if she often startled strangers in their bedroom in the middle of the night, the intruder replied, according to police: "Yes, because I'm awesome."
The word long ago lost all meaning, but Neil Armstrong really was awesome, "inspiring wonder and reverence." He departed this Earth last Saturday, at age 82, but of course he'd departed this Earth already, 43 years ago. On July 20, 1969, Armstrong found himself halfway through a business trip but still a quarter of a million miles from home. Next time you're halfway home -- laying over in Atlanta, your connection delayed -- listen to the chorus of complaints around you. Then think of Armstrong: Going about his work in silence, exemplar of humility on the Sea of Tranquility.