Ever wonder where this phrase originated? I always find it fascinating to discover the origins of phrases and words but don’t frequently enough apply my curiosity to the actual labor of discovery. That’s mostly because I’m inherently lazy, but fortunately I have bright, well-educated friends who compensate for me.
A couple years ago we started a book club with the goal of spending more time with some friends who’s company we really enjoy but weren’t able to get together very often due to the nature of DC metro area demands on time. We would rotate responsibility for selecting the book between couples which always became interesting to see if the selection would be a collaborative choice or represent a reflection of one spouse’s literary interests. Regardless of the method of selection, most of the books we read were valuable additions to our mental library—sometimes for pure reading enjoyment and sometimes for the education they provided.
One of the couples selected a book titled “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.” The book was about James Garfield, our 20th President with a focus on the events surrounding his assassination. I took away two strong impressions from the book.
The first goes back to an earlier post about balancing humility with confidence. It turns out, James Garfield never wanted to be president. He was in charge of the party’s convention to nominate one of a number of other candidates, but the delegates to the convention couldn’t settle on any particular candidate. Ultimately, a delegate from Wisconsin proposed nominating Garfield because of his record as a politician and his integrity as a man. Garfield fought tooth and nail against the nomination but was nominated nonetheless by his colleagues. How many people do you know who push back on a significant honor, position, responsibility because they truly believe they aren’t worthy (not self-serving self-deprecation) when all around them know they are exactly what the challenge requires to be overcome. Garfield is the embodiment of this character, yet how much is that character discussed in our schools when we think of great Presidents.
The second impression is the complete opposite of Garfield’s humble character. Garfield was assassinated during the timeframe that England’s Joseph Lister was promoting the revolutionary medical concept of antiseptic medicine to combat infections. Unfortunately, this concept hadn’t taken hold across the pond and few doctors gave it any credence in practical application in the United States. This included the surgeon who treated Garfield after the shooting. According to the author, Garfield may have survived the shooting had the surgeon applied the technique at nearly any time during the lengthy course of treatment. Instead, the surgeon poked and probed the wound with his finger attempting to find and dislodge the bullet. We know today that this kind of approach increases the chances of infection due to germs and viruses that we carry on our naked skin each day. This surgeon’s pride got in the way of his ability to help even while he was trying to save the President’s life. If only Dr. Bliss hadn’t been so ignorant and allowed humility to balance out his overconfidence.