“Are you condescending to me?” What emotions does this word conjure in you? Discomfort? Annoyance? Do your hackles raise, catlike? Are you prepared to be miffed? The verb ‘to condescend’ has such a strong pejorative sense that it’s hard to think of it in positive terms at all.
But the verse of a hymn has been running through my head:
He is our Guide and Friend;
To us He’ll condescend;
His love shall never end.
(“Come, Christians, Join to Sing”, lyrics by Christian H. Bateman, 1843)
I was surprised to find that the original meaning of ‘condescend’, from 1340, was ‘to back down, to submit, yield deferentially’–quite the opposite of its more current meaning, ‘to stoop to the level of one’s inferiors,’ which dates to 1611. Literally it means to “descend with”, but its most common connotation now is that one has a sense of being superior and doing something beneath one’s dignity. It tends to be paired with the word ‘patronizing’ and carries the idea that you are doing a great favor to someone or a group by deigning to act in such a manner–and that you let them know it, on no uncertain terms. One who acts in such a way is labeled a snob, and seems to take pleasure in letting everyone feel his vast superiority.
Our current U.S. president has been called ‘condescending’ by many writers (including recently Campbell Brown in a New York Times op ed, and Charles Krauthammer). In fact, just Google “Obama and condescension”–that’s what I did–and the list of links goes on for pages and pages. His communication often implies that those who disagree with him are either willfully ignorant or mentally deficient.
Being condescending in this sense makes people uncomfortable: they either feel guilty and awkward, or they’re insulted that you consider them so obviously beneath you. But I would contend that someone who makes you feel that way is actually NOT condescending in any real sense, because they are making no attempt to join you at your level. Rather, they’re making you very much aware of how different your station or situation or education or…whatever…is than their own. Rather than finding a common ground, they are looking down from a lofty elevation from which they have no intention of descending.
Reading Mohammad Yunus’ Banker to the Poor brought home the power of true condescension better than nearly anything else I’ve ever read. His book is the memoir of a man who left his university’s ivory tower to see whether the economic theories he was teaching really had any bearing on the lives of the poor wretches barely surviving in the next village. Thirty years ago Grameen Bank was born out of his overwhelming compulsion to make fair, modest, short-term loans to people–mostly women–who without such simple assistance (in one case, the lack of less than one dollar’s worth of supplies) were trapped in a vise between moneylenders and starvation. This man, and the majority of his students who are bank employees, are Muslims. Their compassion and willingness to leave their comfortable lives and go into the most destitute places, patiently and repeatedly, in order to explain the hope they offer, puts me to shame.
True condescension can be more than uncomfortable for the one who’s doing the stooping; it can be literally painful. One mundane, practical example: I condescended recently to weed and deadhead my perennial garden. And it was painful to get down on the weeds’ level: either I was stooping awkwardly and my back complained, or I was squatting or kneeling and my legs were unhappy. Condescension is no picnic. Think about scrubbing floors, painting floor molding, hunting for lost toys under the couch, or even talking to preschoolers by stooping down so you can look them in the eye. Physically, this is demanding, un-fun stuff.
Want more proof? How about a great artist who stoops to become part of the work he’s created? Limiting himself so narrowly that he is confined inside the world that he invented? What happens when the creatures, in this world of his own making, turn on him? When they kill him? Is that evidence enough that condescension may be hazardous to one’s health?
And yet. We are commanded to practice this kind of condescension: “Go into all the world.” “Look out not only for your own interests, but the interests of others.” “Care for widows and orphans.” “Whatever you do for one of the least of these…” “The servant is not greater than his master.”
The call to community, to servanthood and humility, is the call to condescension, to get down and get our hands dirty, to stoop to the level of those we serve, so that we can really understand their needs. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was the poster woman for condescension in this literal sense. Those who go to serve with the Peace Corps, do a short-term mission trip in a disaster relief area or move to a third world country, often find themselves in similar down-and-dirty circumstances.
In my humble opinion, what humanity needs, in order to overcome our current crises, is much more individual, faithful condescension, and much less governmental intervention.
(Based on a post originally published June 28, 2007, on a former blog of mine.)