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on humility


When K. asked me to define humility, I didn’t hesitate. “It’s the opposite of arrogance,” I said. “The opposite of pride.” But immediately, I followed up with, “Well, wait; that’s what humility isn’t. Give me a moment so I can think of what it is.”


(I was reminded of a dear friend’s favorite expression – “conspicuous by its absence,” as in, say, a bridegroom standing at an altar. The room may be overflowing with people but we’re all waiting for the bride. We notice what’s missing. It’s the boss skipping the meeting. Fall without acorns. White chocolate. Examples abound, but I digress.)


Humility is the condition of being humble. Ugh! Those are the worst kinds of definitions. Reminds me of being a kid when my parents told me to go look something up in the dictionary and I’d wind up going in circles. Even the definition of humble isn’t very helpful as it not only describes “a low opinion of one’s own importance or merits” but goes on to include “not proud or haughty,” (there it is again – conspicuous by its absence) and neither of those gets where I’m going, although the first definition might have been close to what inspired K.’s question in the first place.


K. was thinking of athletes who have reached the pinnacle of their sport. She suggested that humility was inappropriate, maybe even inauthentic, when you are number one. If you’re the best, you know it and you should be proud. I understand; I get that; I agree. In fact, it’s probably true of most people at the top of their field, whether that’s sports, academics, science, politics, art, cooking, whistling or tiddly winks. Even with natural talent, it takes years of applied effort, practice and surpassing the competition to reach that highest status – to be the best. Having a low opinion of yourself just doesn’t jibe. You worked hard to get to the top and you know where you stand. But being the best at something, or even good at something, does not preclude humility. Pride and humility are not opposites nor are they mutually exclusive. Indeed, some superstars are very humble people. And any one of us can definitely spot, and have a strong reaction to, a winner who is not.


Rather than “a low opinion of one’s importance or merits,” I’d argue that humility is a high opinion of the inherent importance and merits of others, regardless of talents and skills, whether they are evident, apparent, implied or latent. Humility is seeing others as a mirror, seeing the self – our self – in others. It recognizes our equality. We see our successes, our fears, our setbacks, our accomplishments, and we allow ourselves to be seen in the same way. Humility is compassion, that is, recognizing that we all suffer. Humility lets others shine in their best way. Humility sees and acknowledges our common humanity.


It helps to remember the root in both words, reminding us that we are all of this earth, sharing far more in common than that which separates us. All we have is each other.

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