Can the truly humble attain greatness in wordly affairs?

Posted on 03/01/10

By Michael Shermer, William Saletan, Omid Safi, Robert Royal, Kate Wheeler, and David Warren

Michael Shermer

“A is A. Humility is what it means to be true to yourself.”

Humility, or the state of being humble, is a character or virtue of one’s self that is, for the most part, orthogonal to success in life or greatness in world affairs. That is, geometrically speaking, humility and success are at right angles to one another, or in terms of experimental design, they are statistically independent. In other words, one can be humble or arrogant, modest or showy, self-effacing or brash and also achieve world-changing greatness or do absolutely nothing of note.

As humility is a virtue we of course acknowledge those who express it even as they receive our accolades for greatness. What could be more stirring than the mighty Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig standing before tens of thousands of cheering fans at Yankee Stadium after word got out that he had a deadly disease that would render this his last public appearance? “For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break,” he said. “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Wow, it raises a lump in one’s throat. That is true humility, spoken by one of the greatest athletes in history. But for every Lou Gehrig there is a braggadocio ballplayer (or politician or scientist or artist) who considers us to be the luckiest people on earth for the chance to witness his greatness. Gag me. If only such brashness rendered them all mute.

Greatness is a result of many variables, none of which have much at all to do with the virtue of humility. Intelligence, skill, training, coaching, advice, social connections, timing, luck, and plain old hard work and diligence all factor into someone’s achieving success. And if we throw a good measure of self-confidence, risk-taking, and derring-do into the mix, this would make humility even less likely to be expressed. Perhaps this is why we tend to notice — and reward with public recognition — those great ones who also show a little humility along the way. (Perhaps they even get a little boost now and again from such recognition, but I’m afraid that it isn’t necessary to get them to or help them stay at the top.)

In the end, at the deepest level, you have to be true to yourself, and this means observing the principle of A is A, that existence exists, reality is real, and that you are you and not someone else. To try to be something that you are not, or to pretend to be someone else, is a violation of that most fundamental axiom of life. In your personal life, A is A means to discover who you are, what you believe, where you want to go, when you want to get there, why you are here, and how you got here. Our task in growing up, coming of age, and pursuing a career is discovering who we are. To thine own self be true.

Thine own self is your A, which cannot also be non-A. The attempt to make A into non-A has caused countless problems in people’s lives, so by being true to yourself you can avoid a lot of the difficulties many people encounter. People who work in jobs they hate are not being true to themselves; they are in violation of the principle of A is A. Gays who pretend to be straight by getting married and having children hurt themselves and their families because they are being untrue to themselves — A cannot be non-A. Priests and ministers who doubt the existence of God and the purpose of their calling lead lives of deception and fail utterly because they are trying to make A into non-A, just as atheists do who pretend to believe in God because of social pressure. A is A applies to beliefs as well as actions.

People who seek self-esteem through the success of others are in violation of the true nature and cause of self-esteem: accomplishment through honest hard work. Governments who try to help the poor by robbing the rich destroy both the poor and the rich, because the poor can only become rich by helping themselves and the rich earned their riches and deserve to keep them. Nations that attempt to force other nations into political and economic change that they do not want will be met with violent resistance. A will never be non-A, no matter how hard anyone tries to make it so.

Humility is knowing what your A is and following it with integrity.

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Michael Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic and editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. Dr. Shermer’s latest book is The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics (Times Books). His last book was Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design (Times Books), and he is the author of The Science of Good and Evil (Henry Holt and Company) and Why People Believe Weird Things (W. H. Freeman & Co.).

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William Saletan

“Everywhere, the humble are imprisoned, intimidated, or impotent. The best lack all ambition, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Humility won’t help you get ahead in this world. But if you want to be great, it’s essential.

Greatness is more than power, wealth, or fame. It’s a transcendent ideal. Long after you’re dead, people can argue over whether you were great. Were you good but ineffectual? Rich but thoughtless? Benevolent but misguided? Influential but evil? Loved by the public but cruel to your family? From Alexander the Great to Ronald Reagan to Pete Rose, these debates never end. They are conversations about what greatness means.

In the struggle for status and riches, humility is no friend. It won’t get you booked on Oprah. It won’t clear your path to the corner office. It won’t put you in the ESPN highlight reel. It won’t give you the chutzpah to run for president or the will to destroy your rivals.

In fact, it’s a career killer. When I was a kid, I thought the people who ran the world had to be really smart. Since then, I’ve realized that what distinguishes these people isn’t their intelligence. It’s their overconfidence. They think they know how to make decisions that will alter the fates of millions of people. And to make these decisions, they’re willing to claw their way to positions of power. That’s why they run the world and you don’t.

Bill Clinton became governor of Arkansas at thirty-two. George W. Bush went from baseball owner to president in six years. Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy two years after leaving the Illinois senate. Bush launched a war in Iraq; Obama is reconfiguring one-sixth of the world’s largest economy. These are not humble men. They didn’t hesitate, defer, or pay their dues. They had the audacity not just to hope, but to run and rule.

And that’s the benign version of the story. Abroad, the will to power prevails more brutally. Stalin destroyed Trotsky. The Chinese Politburo crushed the dissidents of Tiananmen Square. Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard strangled democracy in Iran. Everywhere, the humble are imprisoned, intimidated, or impotent. The best lack all ambition, while the worst are full of a passionate intensity.

Against such threats, good leaders require courage. America’s founders defied their king. FDR’s ego carried his nation through depression and world war. Humility, by contrast, has often proved a failing. In the shadow of Hitler, Britain needed a Churchill, not a Chamberlain. Jimmy Carter’s modesty about America’s economy and its role in the world didn’t go over well, either. His countrymen traded him in for Reagan.

Left to itself, then, humility can be both a handicap and a fault. The Jewish sage and scholar Hillel said it best: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”

But that was only half of Hillel’s message. His next question was just as important: “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

In the latter question, we can begin to see the flaws of a self-serving life. The first flaw is emptiness. Congratulations: You’ve appeared on Oprah, claimed the corner office, or made the highlight reel. So what? Attention-grabbing antics may have gotten you this far, but they can’t elevate you to greatness. To be great, you have to represent something bigger than yourself. You need more than personality. You need substance.

The second flaw is isolation. A career that’s all about you can’t engage others in a lasting project. In twenty or forty or sixty years, you’ll be dead. What then? Look at the fallen and abandoned statues of bygone tyrants around the world: Ferdinand Marcos, Nicolae Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein. In fifty years, who will care about them? What legacies will they leave? As long as men are mortal, greatness will depend on cooperation. It will require the humility to heed and serve others.

Egotism’s third and fatal flaw is complacency. Pride blinds you to your shortcomings. It keeps you from seeing beyond what you’ve become and what you’ve accomplished. This is the hardest test of greatness, the eye of the needle through which you must pass. To become great, you must first understand the ways in which you could be greater than you are. In a word, you must be humble.

That kind of humility has given us many of history’s great leaders: Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s what inspired George W. Bush to summon his countrymen to “something greater than yourself.” It’s what compelled Jesse Jackson to acknowledge, “God is not finished with me yet.” These men weren’t perfect. None of us is. But that’s the point.

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William Saletan is a columnist for Slate.com and author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War (University of California Press)

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Omid Safi

“For it to be genuine greatness it must include a constant mindfulness that there is a force in the cosmos greater than our own egos.”

In years of researching Muslim reflections on Muhammad for my book Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters, I came to realize that one of the key spiritual teachings Muslims identify with the Prophet Muhammad is the very mercy of his being, demonstrated through his humility. Indeed, in our tradition, though this might surprise those who have a blinkered view of Islam, the greatest are often the humblest. So, yes, the truly humble can achieve earthly greatness. But for it to be genuine greatness it must include a constant mindfulness that there is a force in the cosmos greater than our own egos. That force is ultimately none other than God for Muslims. There is no such thing as greatness without God. A seemingly great general, for example, who does not serve God, is not really great at all. All he can boast of is the mirage of greatness.

Humility is not only compatible with greatness, but it always accompanies real greatness. Saladin is one of the most famous men in history, admired even in Europe during the Crusades. He was humble and religious. When his great opponent, Richard the Lionheart, succumbed to a fever, Saladin sent him fruits and ice. Saladin established many universities and hospitals, but he always requested that they not bear his name. A scholar might not be considered as much of a worldly success as a great military leader, but the poet Rumi, the Persian Sufi, was certainly revered and sought out by the powerful. But Rumi was a humble man who turned down the offers of kings to build him palaces, saying that palaces belonged to kings, and seminaries sufficed for mystics and scholars.

For us, Muhammad is the model of what it means to be a human being. The Qur’an refers to Muhammad being a “lovely model” for humanity. So, if he was able to achieve earthly success while being humble, then others can too. Though it is perhaps not his image in the Western world, Muhammad most certainly did practice the virtue of humility while becoming a great man with a lasting impact.

No episode of Muhammad’s life demonstrates his humility in the face of achieving earthly success more than his triumphant return to his hometown of Mecca, the city where centuries earlier Abraham and Ishmael had dedicated the Temple of Ka‘ba to the One God. At the end of his earthly life, Muhammad assembled an army of ten thousand people and began marching toward Mecca. By both Arab and biblical tradition, Muhammad had the right to march into Mecca and slaughter all the men and take their women as slaves. But he did neither. Instead Muhammad declared a general amnesty, establishing a paradigm for forgiveness, reconciliation, and mercy at the height of his political power. There is something particularly admirable, even lovely, about humility when it comes from those in the zenith of earthly political and military success.

Often when we think of earthly greatness, we tend to think in terms of standing out over and above others (in matters of sports, music, etc.) or leading them (politically, militarily, and spiritually). Part of the challenge about greatness concerns how these truly great treat those whom they are “greater” than. Muhammad’s example here is instructive: God is great, God is greater. The model of humility wed to earthly success has to be one that brings together serving God and serving humanity, living with God and leading humanity along.

In writing the book Memories of Muhammad, my goal was to recover the narratives through which Muslims have always identified the spiritual teachings of the Prophet. It is possible to achieve greatness in this world, provided the intention is to glorify God and bring humanity together. Humility and greatness, real greatness, as opposed to sham greatness, go together.

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Omid Safi is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina. A leading American Muslim intellectual, he has served for the past seven years as the chair of the Study of Islam Section at the American Academy of Religion, the largest international academy devoted to the study of religion. He is author of Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters (HarperOne).

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Robert Royal

“I presented a paper some years ago on ‘The Humility of Margaret Thatcher,’ a deliberate provocation.”

It’s a demonstrable historical fact that humility has often been confused with arrogance. The Athenians thought Socrates, who “knew he knew nothing,” dangerous and contentious. The English thought Joan of Arc, a humble girl from the French countryside, a scheming witch. And in more recent memory, Christopher Hitchens, who — whatever his other qualities — to date has not picked up a single lice-infested beggar from Calcutta’s gutters, thought Mother Teresa a tyrant. The list could go on at length of great, humble figures whose fame will outlast any and all critics. No other character trait produces such a confusion between the lowly and the mighty. It’s almost as if the simple and solid were somehow too complex and exalted for us to understand.

Every virtue faces some contradictory emotion. Courage confronts fear. Wisdom opposes impulse. But the virtue does not eliminate those parts of human nature, which in any event cannot be eliminated. Virtue guides them, tames them, or gives them a proper attention. If human beings could become so courageous as to be without fear of anything, for instance, they would quickly destroy themselves. Humility has to keep in check quite common and quite unreal notions of self-importance, but that does not mean that humility results in a kind of self-abasement and worldly failure. Rather, humility properly understood consists in preventing us from taking our self-interested illusions for truth.

If humility were a kind of shuffling, mumbling self-doubt and self-frustration, it could not be expected to produce great human beings. Because it has produced them, that view must be false. If humility were solely a recognition of the insignificance and transitoriness of human life — like a bird darting at night through a lighted room, as the ancient world put it — then it wouldn’t lead to much heroic effort in this world. Yet it has, and so this view too must be false. If humility, however, is an appreciation of our weakness and fragility, as well as our rock-bottom status as unique beings privileged to live and act in a world that is both physically larger and morally smaller than we are, then it serves an important function.

Humility appears in the least-expected places. I could provide addresses and phone numbers of businesspeople, financiers, even hedge fund managers who are deeply humble in the sense of trying, like all of us, to make sense of how their professions, including the temptations of wealth, fit into an honorable human life. Some are religious, others secular but serious about ethics. A bank president, the most successful money manager in his state, was questioned by a Pennsylvania banking commission because he had not invested in Enron when it was highly profitable — the assumption being he had insider information. He modestly read the commission an excerpt from Enron’s last report before its collapse. “What do you make of that?” “We don’t understand it.” “Neither did I. That’s why I didn’t put any money into it.” He also reads widely in philosophy, literature, and history. He is the kind of banker who is invisible, for the most part because he will never do the perp walk on the nightly news.

One has the impression, though, that worldly success in the question being asked here has something to do with politics or public affairs. Even there, however, the evidence is pretty solid that humility is not an automatic disqualifier and has its uses. I presented a paper some years ago on “The Humility of Margaret Thatcher,” a deliberate provocation. Afterward, someone reminded me that in Britain she had once been called “Margaret Thatcher the milk snatcher” after she discontinued a children’s program. True enough, but for me that shows her humility in recognizing that neither she nor any other politician ought to do certain things, unlike their arrogant colleagues who think they should have the power to do anything they want.

At the same time, when Salman Rushdie, a sharp critic of Thatcher and of Britain generally, was under a fatwa due to his presentation of Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses, Thatcher the Iron Lady was unwavering in using British forces to protect him. If she had been a postmodernist Irony Lady, in Rushdie’s line, he would have long ago discovered from personal experience whether Islamic teachings are true. You may not agree with someone’s principles, but when those principles take precedence above someone’s interests and goals, we are in the presence of a certain humility toward truth and justice.

Of course, humility will not give you world historical figures like Napoleon or the self-indulgent life of a Lindsay or Britney, if that’s what our question here is ultimately meant to ask. But is humility any less a virtue for that? In my humble estimation, seeing the wreckage caused by such worldly successes and those who would seek to imitate them, pas du tout.

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Robert Royal is president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West (Encounter Books).

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Kate Wheeler

“Humility implies an awareness that one is not omnipotent, that one’s actions are embedded in a wider network of cause and effect.”

The man who eventually became known as the Buddha, which simply means “awakened,” is a prime example. Born into the ruling class in northern India about 2,500 years ago, and exceedingly well educated, the future Buddha excelled at all the skills of warfare and politics he was taught during his leadership training. However, he was also a compassionate, inquiring young man, dissatisfied with the scope of his role. To assume the kingship would not provide him with the scope of influence he desired, so he abdicated and went in search of deeper insight. History has proven him correct, for Buddhist teachings, and the monastic society built to pass them on, survive to the present day in many different social conditions and new contexts; the great kings and merchants of the Buddha’s time are remembered chiefly because of their association with him.

The Buddha’s interest lay not in aggrandizing himself nor enlarging his kingdom but in discovering the most effective methods to allay distress. He did not believe in relying on divine intervention, but rather on a confidence in human possibility and effort in line with the laws of nature. Discrimination, energy, reason, and insight are listed among virtues to be cultivated. In his teachings he constantly asks people not to take for granted the wisdom of others, but to ask themselves what leads to happiness, what to misery, and then act accordingly.

A spirit of objectivity and investigation still pervades even the more mystical, exotic-looking forms this tradition has taken over the ensuing centuries. (Though Buddhism has accrued many of the trappings of a religion, many Buddhists would prefer it to be considered as a system of contemplative ethics, even a kind of science.) Morality is discussed in terms of becoming more and more skillful at being kind. Kindness supports the well-being of oneself and others. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Even Buddhist mysticism is based on an understanding that we function and feel our best when inner toxins like greed, hostility, and delusion are not allowed to hold sway over our actions and thoughts.

Much of the historical Buddha’s advice to laypeople was concrete and has the ring of a contemporary management tract or even a self-help manual. His suggestions to treat employees fairly, ensure a family has enough savings, and apply innovative business strategies still sound fresh. Supporters and students came from all walks of life: simple farmers, entrepreneurial merchants opening up new trade routes to Greece, disenfranchised widows, disgruntled scions of wealth. He advised all of them to associate with people they could learn from, and not to frequent places that would lead to a decline in well-being or the dispersal of hard-earned wealth. One fascinating aspect of the Buddha’s thinking is his acute awareness of time. When speaking of external affairs he stresses timely interventions. As he contemplates the nature of life, it is impermanence that strikes him most. How shall we spend this interlude between birth and death? Buddhism speaks of fleetingness, working with and accepting the inevitability of change. Equally important, one develops an understanding that behaviors and thoughts are embedded in a network of cause and effect. Actions have consequences, both within ourselves and for others. This sense of internal cause and effect is critical to the difference between “greatness” and mere success. For does not greatness imply the refinement of one’s nature? Greatness is not a merely external measure — otherwise it would be called fame.

Buddhism does not restrict laypeople from amassing wealth and influence, but it asks them to abide by basic ethical principles of justice and not harming. Buddhists are enjoined not to “squeeze” and destroy the sources of livelihood, as bees do not harm flowers. Whatever degree of prosperity one attains should then be used to benefit oneself, one’s family and friends, and society as a whole. There are specific instructions to philanthropy: support others who engage full-time in beneficial endeavors that may not yield material profit, but again, never in miserly fashion at the expense of one’s own basic well-being or that of one’s spouse and children.

If the word humility is not traditionally part of the Buddhist lexicon, a working Buddhist definition of the term is not difficult to derive. Humility implies an awareness that one is not omnipotent, that one’s actions are embedded in a wider network of cause and effect. At the same time, one’s behavior and thinking lead to consequences. In order to not become deluded about our activity, a degree of honest introspection is necessary. Each Buddhist progressively refines her or his behavior based on observation, trial, and error. There is an implicit progression that moves us from ethics to compassion to contemplation and then back again as one’s skills and virtues are gradually refined. Yet all these are skills to be practiced; each will yield results to the degree a person chooses to enact them. In Buddhist teaching, studying the workings of our nature is the basis for well-being, then meditation skills allow practitioners to dissolve the hold of depressing, exhausting mental toxins. One need only feel confident enough to try. The Buddhist teaching that delusion, anger, and greed are not inherently part of our nature, for example, must be tested and borne out though focused attention and investigation.

Critically yet compassionately inquiring into oneself, one will have to admit the presence of greed, hostility, and delusion, as well as their tiresome undesirability. The very admission and recognition of these forces begin to diminish their hold over one’s mind. As MRI laboratory studies are beginning to confirm, over time and with concentrated attention, the forces of hatred and greed may become attenuated to the vanishing point. In the Buddha’s words: “A person realizes that if infatuation, hostility, and delusion were eradicated he would no longer hurt himself, he would no longer hurt others, he would no longer experience depression and distress.” Reformulated in Western language: humility is not an obstacle to greatness, it is rather the very path to it.

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Kate Wheeler is author of Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction (Wisdom Publications).

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David Warren

“Sir Thomas More exemplifies for all statesmen a humility that is larger than a charming conceit. He kept, as it were, both feet on the ground.”

Perhaps the best way to begin considering humility as a virtue in public life is by showing an especially flagrant example of what it is not. Here is a quote from the wife of a prominent American politician:

One of the things that my mom always said — because people ask her all the time, “What did you do to create Michelle Obama?” And the one thing my mom has always said, and I agree, she said, “You know, Michelle and Barack aren’t new.” She says, “Michelle and Barack are not unique.” She says, “There are thousands of Michelle and Barack Obamas all over this nation, in neighborhoods and communities all over the place.” And she is absolutely right. She is absolutely right. There is no magic to us.

Upon reading this, I found myself spontaneously (if inaudibly) replying, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you ARE magic, and that is a big part of our problem.”

Implicit in the remark is the acceptance of herself and her husband as characters deserving of public adulation. The comparison to hypothetical persons, never to be named, can only be a pose. And while the speaker falls short of presenting either herself or her husband as entirely self-created, the way she brings her mother into it puts that idea at only one remove. As the friend who forwarded this quote to me (it was from a “girls’ mentoring conference” at the White House in early November) noted, far from being an expression of humility, it was the precise opposite. It was a vainglorious statement.

While there are terms for humility in all the other religious traditions — it is usually taken as simply the opposite of pride — our Western notion of this virtue carries the hallmarks of the deepest theological and philosophical examination.  In general, the Schoolmen did not take humility as an independent quality, but annexed it to the cardinal virtue of temperance, in a convincing way, within an overall scheme in which prudence is the master virtue of human action. (See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, second part of second part, question 161, all six articles for a characteristically exhilarating sweep of the field.) Without going into space-consuming details, I would say it is my impression that the best Buddhist thinkers also contemplated it deeply, and tended toward the same conclusion: humility is an aspect of temperance.

The word is traditionally understood to descend from the Latin humus, “earth.” Colloquially to this day, humility brings us “down to earth,” and if we are imprudent, we will be humbled, or “brought down to earth,” with or without our own assistance.

But we cannot understand this, in Western or essentially Christian terms, if we ignore the great cosmic fact that Christ, as very God, “came down from heaven to earth” in a remarkable and entirely voluntary act of divine “humility” without parallel in any other religion. Western civilization, it should go without saying, is the product of an expressly Catholic understanding of this great cosmic fact and its implications through all space and time.

Moreover, by His consenting to be hanged upon the Cross, we have understood the much stronger term humiliation to contain some profound intrinsic merit. The very idea that an omnipotent God would agree to be humbled before a mere Roman jurist (to say nothing of the bloodthirsty mob) was a scandal to the ancient world: an intellectual scandal more than anything. (See Origen against Celsus.) The same ancient objection is carried forward to the present day in Islam: surely an omnipotent God would have had no trouble scattering the whole Roman Empire. And of course, the subsequent idea of Christ’s Resurrection was no easier for them.

My own primary hero, in politics, is Saint Thomas More, the chancellor of Henry VIII of England: a brilliantly accomplished statesman, of pan-European reputation in his day, who went quite voluntarily to the block rather than accept his monarch’s claim to be exempt from the moral authority of the Catholic Church. A man of extraordinary foresight, More intuited more or less precisely what the consequences would be for all Western Christendom once the precedent of Henry VIII had been established. More agreed to be humiliated himself rather than accept this. Indeed, we are still living in the fallout from Henry’s arrogance (and the parallel acts of Gustav Vasa in Sweden). Our whole modern state system is built upon it, and all the historical consequences of nationalism.

That aside, More exemplifies for all statesmen a humility that is larger than a charming conceit. He kept, as it were, both feet on the ground. He was willing, without hesitation, to sacrifice all rather than grant a more than earthly prestige to earthly power.  

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Formerly editor of Idler Magazine, David Warren is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.

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