Humility is one of the foundations for achieving peaceful and respectful social relations. The truth is that it has not been mankind’s forte since it came out of the cave; to the contrary, we would not have had so many wars.
What I have observed recently though, is that very few people even mention the word anymore. One has to read old texts of philosophy and wisdom to find references to it.
Today, instead of humility, people talk about loving oneself as a path to happiness. The same way, being humble is seldom taught to children any more, while boosting one’s self-esteem is seen as the sine qua non to success in life. I find it unsettling.
Ego ad infinitum
There is a very thin line between self-worth and arrogance, and perhaps an even thinner one between loving oneself and egotism. Humility however can prevent one from encroaching upon the other.
In my view, humility is a way to step away from oneself, because by being humble, one recognizes his own fallibility. As a result, through “constructive doubt,” as Bertrand Russell once called it, one becomes open-minded, considers the position of others with respect, and hence acts with compassion avoiding the infliction of harm.
Bernard de Clairvaux, the French Abbot better known as Saint Bernard, came to the same conclusion eight centuries earlier when he said, “humility engenders compassion.”
Imagine a world where everyone loves oneself more than others, where they believe their self-worth is such that they can actually achieve anything. Given the current literature on “self-improvement” you may see these as positive qualities. For me, they are simple ego boosters, soothing an artificial sense of self.
Take the same attitude and multiply it, mix it with nationalism and religion and what do you get? – almost always conflict, and most often, violent conflict. Or take a step back and think of harassment at work or on the street, of a despotic parent, or of abuse of authority at a border crossing.
A drop in the ocean
The moment you realize that you are just a “drop in the ocean,” to quote Rumi, you can finally let go of that ego that binds you. Every drop is needed to make an ocean. And when you contemplate the ocean, no drop is larger than another one because they all form one ocean.
Being humble does not mean being less worthy, because the very notion of “worth” becomes irrelevant, and that, you see, is most liberating and does lead to the tranquillity of the heart.
Thank you for reading.
– For Bertrand Russell’s writings on critical thinking, see “Philosophy” (1927), “Portraits From Memory” (1956) and “The Problems of Philosophy” (1973). All of Bertrand Russell’s writings are available on the Internet via the Bertrand Russell Society.
– For Bernard de Clairvaux, see “The twelve degrees of humility and pride,” written in 1127.