Humility is widely under-rated in most Western cultures, it seems to me. It’s also widely misunderstood – maybe that’s why it’s under-rated.
Our popular-media culture is saturated with themes of conflict, combat, and conquest. Popular films feature cops chasing crooks; the military fighting terrorists; the lone avenger pursuing the evil-doers. We say we love peace makers, but our heroes are warriors. As a society, we like our celebrities to be cheeky, self-important, and even a bit narcissistic.
Little wonder that humble people seem a bit strange to us, as if they’re following some syncopated life rhythm that few people around them quite “get.”
Having claimed that humility is misunderstood, I suppose it’s incumbent on me to offer a definition.
What is humility? It’s a subtle concept, and I find myself having to frame it mostly in terms of what it is not. My conception of humility is what you have when you give up certain self-aggrandizing thought patterns, reflexes, and behaviors. I offer the proposition – and the value judgment – that humility is a kind of liberation, a paradoxical state of freedom from the culturally imposed norms of narcissistic “me-first” thinking.
Practitioners of many spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism, would say that attaining such a state is a necessary part of the journey toward enlightenment.
Humility is about emotional neutrality. It involves an experience of growth in which you no longer need to put yourself above others, but you don’t put yourself below them, either. Everyone is your peer – from the most “important” person to the least. You’re just as valuable as every other human being on the planet, no more and no less. It’s about behaving and reacting from purpose, not emotions. You learn to simply disconnect or de-program the competitive reflex in situations where it’s not productive.
Humility is less a matter of self-restraint and more a matter of self-esteem. The greater your sense of self-worth, the easier it is to appreciate others, to praise them, and to encourage them.
Does this mean that it’s wrong to try to win at bridge, or improve your tennis game, or compete to get ahead in your work place? Of course not – those are parts of a separate dimension of life. Your talents and abilities will speak for themselves. What we’re dealing with here is a matter of social intelligence, which involves inviting people to move with and toward you, instead of away and against you.
A well-developed sense of humility shines through in your behavior toward others. They feel affirmed, appreciated, encouraged, validated, and psychically nourished. Most of us are powerfully drawn to people who treat us that way, like bees to flowers.