From the potential unique location – the site of devastation that we might become – we understand that we are no grander than the rest of the world. Indeed, we are less than most things. The smallest stone we pick up randomly from a riverbed has long preceded us and will outlive us. Humans are barely existing entities: how can we claim privileges? Fundamentally, we are vulnerable, fragile creatures. And if unlike the rest of existence, people are endowed with reason, it is this gift of reason that should lead us to understand how modest our place in the Cosmos actually is.
The experience of failure, then, ought to inculcate humility. Rather than a virtue in the narrow sense, humility should be seen, more broadly, as a certain type of insertion into the world, as a way of life. In The Sovereignty of Good (1970), Iris Murdoch came up with one of the best, most economical definitions of humility, which is simply ‘selfless respect for reality’. She thinks that ordinarily, people suffer from a poor adjustment to reality (‘our picture of ourselves has become too grand’, we have lost ‘the vision of a reality separate from ourselves’), and it’s one that harms us, above anything else. To reverse the process, to heal, it helps to learn humility, ‘the most difficult and central of all virtues’.
I see three major phases here. In a first movement, humility presupposes an acknowledgment of our cosmic insignificance. This is something as old as philosophizing itself; it is what Yahweh wanted to instill in Job when he asked him: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?’ and what the Stoics meant when they recommended ‘the view from above’; what Lady Philosophy sought to teach a terrified-to-death Boethius in his prison cell; or what, more recently, Carl Sagan popularized so well. Embracing our cosmic insignificance is the zero-degree of the human existence – lower than this we cannot go. At this stage, shattered by failure and overwhelmed by the realization of our fundamental precariousness, we rightly feel ‘crushed’, ‘flattened’, ‘reduced to dust’. Humility, thus, places us where we belong; we are brought back to our naked condition. But this is no small feat: for along with the sense of our own self-importance, we also manage to get rid of that mix of self-deceiving habits and self-flattery, which usually keep us hidden from ourselves.
In a second movement, we realize that thanks precisely to our being brought ‘to earth’, we are in fact in a better position because we are finally on firm ground. We can now stand on our own feet – we’ve undergone a rebirth of sorts. Importantly, we also realize that there is no degradation at this stage because, by embracing our cosmic insignificance, we’ve come to be true to ourselves. We may be poor, but we are frightfully honest – especially with ourselves. And that’s always the best place to start; wherever we will go from here, it will be progress and a worthwhile journey. Not to say that there is nothing healthier and more refreshing, especially for minds all too frequently pulled up in the air by the force of their own fantasies, than to be drawn back down to earth once in a while. Hardened dreamers undertaking the mud cure are in for a feast.
The third movement is expansive: thanks to having lowered an anchor into the world and regained an existential equilibrium, we can move on to other, bigger things. The dreams now have the necessary ballast to be dreamt properly. At this stage, humility is no longer an impediment, but an enhancement to action; sometimes there is nothing more daring than the act of the humble. In an important sense, then, humility is the opposite of humiliation: there is nothing demeaning or inglorious about it; on the contrary, humility is rejuvenating, enriching, emboldening. If humiliation leaves us paralyzed and powerless, humility empowers us greatly. True humility, wrote the rabbi Jonathan Sacks, ‘is one of the most expansive and life-enhancing of all virtues’. What it presupposes is not ‘undervaluing yourself’ but an ‘openness to life’s grandeur’.
Humility in response to an experience of failure, then, is at its core a form of therapy, the beginning of a healing process. Properly digested, failure can be a medicine against pretentiousness, arrogance, and hubris. It can get us cured, should we care to try it.
by Costica Bradatan, a Professor of Humanities at Texas Tech University. Excerpted from here.
SEED QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: What does true humility mean to you? Can you share a personal story of a time you experienced humility as a form of therapy? What helps you practice true humility?
AMEN! On earth, no one greater ... No one less than ... Love this writing! Thank you (so much) for sharing!
Wonderful reflection on humility and reality. It is apt to say that the humbleness keeps the society ticking and thinking. The attitude of gratitude makes one realize that man is just one of the the multitude of Gods creation, endowed with the special features of a sound mind in a sound body which is to be used to nurture and care for all of the other creations of God. But the ignorance of the reality is the cause for the arrogance prevailing in society, which is the cause of destruction, distrust and distress.
NAMASTE - is the Indian gesture of the Host welcoming a Guest. He unites the palms and gently bows and Receives/Includes the Guest without invasion/intrusion. The Sanskrit word NAMASTE can be explained as the union of NA(not) MAMAHA(me) TE(you). The Host is Humble enough to elevate the Guest. Humility is the BASIS of Service and Hospitality. The Guest is defined as A-TITHEE i.e Un - Appointed.Anything/ANYBODY can visit us ANY MOMENTwithout an Appointment. So, Everything and Everybody IS A GUEST. They also say ' The GUEST is GOD.( Atithee Devo Bhava ). So, ALL is part of Creation- with all the Opposites. The practice of NAMASTE - even by yourself -whenever and wherever begins to help us ' ACCEPT' the Existence AS IT IS-HERE AND NOW ! One can experience it by sitting with our eyes closed and the hands in a NAMASTE and watch the Breath.Every Exhalation is GIVING and every Inhalation is ACCEPTANCE. In your mind, say EXHALATION -- THANK YOU INHALATION -- EVERYTHING, EXHALATION - THANK YOU INHALATION EVERYBODY EXHALATION --THANK YOU INHALATION - NOW .. EXHALATION -THANK YOU INHALATION - HERE[Hide Full Comment]
It is a true struggle for me to practice humility. On one hand, it is similar to what Vipassana meditation teaches me "see reality as it is", which pull to down to the ground and snap me out of illusions created by self. On the other hand, I realize that how I see reality has true impact on the reality (i.e., how it would manifest ). When I am successful in doing that, it leads to self confidence, and subsequently (and unfortunately) pride and illusion... until a failure takes place. Maybe, I "think" I understand humility, but in fact I do not... that is the struggle.
This writing has deepened and enriched my understanding of humility as "selfless respect for reality." When my sense of my self is engulfed by my arrogance and my sense of superiority, I get disconnected with my being, with other beings and life at large. The essence of my being is the same as the essence of all beings. The drop is the ocean. I am an integral part of the whole. Such realization makes me aware of my illusion of separateness, dispels the darkness of my ignorance, heals my self- inflicted wounds.Such an awakening makes me whole. This is real humility. It expands my awareness. It emboldens me and makes me virtuous.
Humility is not humiliating oneself or putting oneself down. It is not self degradation or self condemnation. It is an acknowledgment of our cosmic insignificance, ridding ourselves of our false sense of self-glorification and arrogance. This is the first movement. In the second movement we embrace our cosmic insignificance. We become frightfully honest and authentic with ourselves. It is like a rebirth of oneself. This leads us to the third movement, a movement of self expansion, self enrichment and self fulfillment. Such expanding self awareness brings blessing to oneself and to others.
I am going through this journey. It is a joyous and fulfilling journey and I am grateful to my spiritual teachers for awakening me and guiding me.
Jagdish P Dave
The word humility is derived from humous, suggesting that we are part of this earth and not apart from it. I am truly humble when I am being myself simply because I am and not for any ego driven agenda. As the author said, humility is selfless respect for reality. Being someone who tends to downplay myself, which is a form of false humility, I have experienced true humility when I am honestly owning up to who and what I am. The sun shines for no purpose -- it shines because that is its nature, it's being humble in human terms, and in so doing all sorts of benefits occur. When I accept and be myself because that is my nature, I am humble like the sun, and in the process I am more integrated and whole, which is healing or therapeutic, and do the most good for others. As has been said, humility isn't thinking less of oneself but thinking of one's self less. Being humble isn't a form of therapy, but it is always therapeutic.