One of my favorite definitions of humility is "being open to the possibility that things are other than the way I think them to be." In this sense, it is one of the absolute keys to change and an essential quality on the path to transformation.
Yet for most people, myself included, we have a love/hate relationship with humility. We love the idea of being unpretentious and know that it's "good for us," but we hate the feeling of making mistakes, being wrong, or being exposed as something other than what we've pretended to be in the world.
To better understand this conflict, let's take a look at some of the different things people mean when they use the word...
1. Humility as modesty
The kind of humility which is most often talked about as a virtue is actually modesty, from the Latin word modestus, meaning "restraint." Modest people are moderate in their self-estimation and restrained in their expression, and in my experience are definitely easier to talk to at parties (if somewhat harder to find).
However, there is a catch -- we tend to strive for "humility as modesty" most when we are feeling it least.
Take for example the lyrics of the famous Mac Davis song It's Hard to Be Humble:
Oh Lord it's hard to be humble
when you're perfect in every way.
I can't wait to look in the mirror
'cos I get better looking each day
To know me is to love me
I must be a hell of a man.
O Lord it's hard to be humble
but I'm doing the best that I can.
In this sense, humility as modesty is more a corrective measure designed to prevent the expression of excessive self-esteem than an actual transformative quality.
And with everyone from our parents and teachers on down encouraging us to "be more humble," it's easy to take the extra step from limiting our expression to limiting our perception, leading to the second common use of the word...
2. Humility as shame
While the first dictionary definition of "humble" is "to cause to be unpretentious," the secondary definition is "to cause to feel shame," with such fun synonyms as abase, chagrin, crush, degrade, demean, demolish, disgrace, humiliate, hurt, injure, offend, put down, and smash.
So it's little wonder that many of us have mixed feelings about being told to "be more humble," as the unspoken but implied second half of the sentence is some variation on "... you worthless piece of crap."
But true humility has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with humanity.
For example, I had a curious experience a month or so ago while standing in line to drop off some forms at my daughter's new school. It was the third line of the evening and looked to be about 45 minutes long which would bring my total "waiting" time for the evening up close to two hours.
As I listened to everyone around me complaining about the disorganization and unfairness of it all, I noticed that I wasn't feeling frustrated or even particularly put out. On reflection, I realized that it was simply because in that moment, I wasn't feeling like my time was any more valuable than anyone else's.
A line I'd once heard from the philosopher Sydney Banks came to mind:
Humility isn't thinking less of yourself; it's thinking of yourself less.
In this sense, humility is humanity. It's nothing to do with high or low self-esteem; it's about recognizing the fact that we are one of six billion waves in the ocean of life, no more or less important than any other.
Which can quickly lead us on to one of the most potent ways of thinking about humility...
3. Humility as awe and gratitude
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, the ultimate torture device is something called "The Total Perspective Vortex."
How does it work?
Well, in the words of author Douglas Adams:
When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, "You are here."
So "humbled" are people who get this dose of perspective that they wander around like zombies for the rest of their lives, defeated and overwhelmed.
But unlike the fictional characters who became defeated and "humbled" in the Total Perspective Vortex, I find this reality check quite refreshing.
Without me, the sun comes up in the morning and the stars twinkle at night. Before I've even gotten out of bed in the morning, the earth has spun 1/3 of the way round its axis and six billion people have done the best they know to do to increase their happiness and mitigate their suffering.
And since I'm not in charge, I get to relax and enjoy the ride. Rather than cower in recognition of my own weakness and even helplessness in the face of forces far greater than my own, I am set free.
Free to appreciate my life when things are going my way and to handle things with grace when they're not. Free to love and contribute to people when they behave the way I want them to and to continue to love and contribute to them when they don't. Free to go out and create the life I want when things seem easy and free to continue to move in that direction when things seem hard.
And in the end, that seems to me to be the core of all our wanting - the freedom to be able to enjoy our lives and be a contribution in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, as best we can for as long as we're here.
Have fun, learn heaps, and relax - it's not up to you. It never was. But if you do your bit and play your part, it's remarkable how far you can go...
With all my love,