The virtue of humility, once well-known and practiced, today disregarded and forgotten. Replaced by its opposite – assertiveness. Was it a wise move for the mankind? Is humility really obsolete and unnecessary? What are the results of the lack of humility for a person and for a society? It may seem impractical to ask such questions in the era of success and continuous development. When everything seems to confirm, that we are right.
Humility was one of the favorite virtues of the Bible. “The meek shall inherit the Earth”. It was therefore strongly practiced when Bible was the compass of the (western) world. But why did God put into it so much importance? Perhaps, as His opponents say, it was part of His mischievous plan to make us slaves or subdued, at least?
The questions of the metaphysical importance of humility will have to wait. Now, I want to take care of the more mundane part of the answer, which is of no less importance, in fact.
So, what is the use of humility? What is it for? Do we need it at all? It is hard to answer such questions in a way that will positively convince anyone. Let’s rephrase the question, then. What happens when we lack humility? What does the lack of humility lead to? What if we count the humiliation among the worst things that may happen to us? Let us see about the answers by examples.
There is a profession where humility is a must. By entering this profession a man states that he will create nothing lasting. Nothing, that could be shown to the future generations with this basic and natural pride: “Look! I’ve made it!”. This is the destiny of nearly everyone entering a legal profession. It is especially true in case of judges. This most prestigious of all legal professions.
The role of a judge is to be an arbiter. The one who resigns from his natural ambitions in order to become a servant for the society. To judge, case by case, accidents of the human life. It requires lot’s of humility to do just that. To avoid the temptation of reshaping the world. By becoming not the modest society servant, but a soul/mind engineer aiming at the creation of a new society, new thinking, new justice and consequently new law.
Only a big modesty – humility may prevent the lawyer from entering this treacherous path. Because it is a treachery. We give to lawyers this prestigious power over us, not to make them our educators, social engineers, who teach us new ethics, new behaviors. We give this power to them, to guard our values, not to change them.
But such honest service requires a strong virtue of humility – to temper ambitions, to temper this natural inclination to make a persistent change. To create a persistent legacy.
The problem of lawyers is that, while being very smart, often exceptionally intelligent, they have no opportunity to create something persistent. Except for some constitutionalists, codifiers. Unlike engineers, architects, scientists, even farmers; lawyers should accept their intellectual, professional life infertility. They should accept, that their vocation is to serve others in everyday life. And therefore, their deeds are not meant to leave a permanent trace on the shape of our world. They should deal with generally untraceable individual cases. But most of them simply cannot accept it.
The adepts of the law schools should be taught humility before anything else. Instead, they are being taught the assertiveness as everyone else. The results are more and more visible.
Another good example here are the medicine doctors. In their case the lack of humility may lead to the behavior known as the god complex. Unhappy are the patients of such doctors.
The more we invest, the harder it is to give up. This basic truth is known (subconsciously, at least) to every swindler. They know, that at some point, their victims will ‘believe’ in anything. It is enough to give just a clue, and the victim will do the rest – give reasons for everything, make up explanations, excuses. Everything is better than admitting to oneself, the family, colleagues, to people who often gave warnings, doubts. Admitting that they were right (sometimes, from the very beginning). There comes a moment when it becomes impossible.
People can even insist that the Earth is flat. Everything is better than the humiliation of saying: “I was wrong. I was stupid. I was naive.”. And even the fact, that everyone else knows the truth already, does not change the victim’s behavior. People choose to play the comedy of “let’s pretend that nothing happened”, instead of just stand in truth and accept the failure.
If not tempered, this natural feature of the human psychology may lead to disastrous results. Friedrich Nietzsche facing the failure of his life path, chose falling into madness over admitting he was wrong in his basic assumptions and the direction chosen. The lack of humility (the fear of humiliation) may have deadly consequences.
Many years ago, in my first professional job I had a manager and a colleague in one person. Since our jobs were not very demanding (we were both much smarter than our jobs required), we had plenty of time on discussions on many subjects. With only one additional colleague in our room (who preferred listening, if interested at all), we sometimes talked for an hour or longer.
One day, my manager opposed me in a subject I understood pretty well. He was pretty good at providing arguments that somehow supported his position and discarding mine as ‘not convincing’. At some point, I led him into a trap. I knew his position was wrong, that it was leading to nonsense. I provoked him into giving a false argument on the responsibilities of a government. It was an obvious consequence of his false position.
When he realized his situation, instead of saying something like “OK. You got me, I was wrong.”, he started to defend by trying to convince me (and the marketing manager who accidentally came in to ask some question) that “the government” means everyone having any official authority. Starting from the prime minister down to the heads of the local tax offices and even lower to the plain clerks. My opponent’s argumentation made the marketing manager smile, but he was wise enough to avoid becoming a judge. Not surprisingly to anyone who could see how emotionally my colleague was defending his lost case.
At that time, it was just a funny experience for me. Seeing how easily the otherwise smart and intelligent people, can get into a situation where they deny even the most obvious things. Just to avoid ‘a humiliation’ of being defeated in a pretty much unimportant discussion on a meaningless subject. When the entire audience of such ‘humiliation’ is just one person besides the opponent.
What can we then expect from people arguing about things that are really important to them? Things that are a part of their Worldview (Weltanschauung)? We do not have to use our imagination here. We can see it everyday in TV, in the Internet discussions. People refusing to accept facts, logic, any kind of reasoning. The longer they defend, the more emotional they get, and the harder it is for them to give up and accept the reality. One may say: “Nobody is happy with their fortune, but everyone - with their reason.”
This inability to accept the fact of being wrong gets more and more destructive. It is one of the factors that result in dividing the society into smaller and smaller groups. Each having their own ‘truths’ – often false and stupid. But fiercely defended, to avoid a humiliation. The practical aspect of such situation, for me as a philosopher, is to avoid longer discussions with the majority of opponents. Because, the discussion is simply pointless.
I was a spectator (and a participant) of many discussions ending with nothing, because nobody wants to accept a defeat. Discussing with people having a (strong) different view is a waste of time. There is no chance to convince such person. It’s like in this old Jewish joke:
– Ise, your wife keeps sluttin’ around the town!
– Huh, you call it town!? Two streets crosswise?
Someone in denial about a thing cannot be persuaded.
To whom then I write my texts to? Obviously, to persons who share my own view. To give them additional arguments, a better, broader understanding. But the most important recipients are for me the ones, who have not decided their opinions, yet. People, who still try to ‘figure out’ the World. People, who seek answers without (strong) prejudices. I hope, my texts will help them to see the reality as it is, not through the blinding glasses of the modern ideologies.
Let’s see now, what humility really is. It is not (only) about being quiet and submissive. However, this is how it looks like in its most radical form practiced in monasticism. But in broader sense, it is a part of adultness and wisdom. One of the major indications of becoming an adult is to understand one’s weaknesses and limits. Humility towards our abilities to confront the world, to confront others, is what distinguishes a childish behavior from the behavior of an adult.
Humility is also the first sign of acquiring the true wisdom. “I know that I know nothing” is an exaggerated, philosophical form, but it points to the important feature of the true wisdom. Without humility we may easily find ourselves to be yet another confirmation of an old truth that “pride goes before a fall”. Searching for truth, wisdom and understanding without humility shall always lead to the overconfidence, pride and a fall. It’s inevitable.
The habit of evading ‘the humiliation’ of being caught on saying/doing something that is seen as unwise or wrong starts very early in our teens. ‘The humiliation’ of being seen as less smart, intelligent, wise. The most sad example here are people, who after they became ‘adults’, refuse to learn anything new. Since the process of learning assumes ‘the humiliation’ of being unskilled at the very beginning. Be it skiing, dancing, foreign language or whatever else. They live their happy lives of ‘no humiliation’ by carefully avoiding anything (and anyone) that could set them in an uncomfortable position. They are old at their twenties.
Humility is a must-have in fighting every addiction. One needs to realize, that there is a problem. This first step alone can be felt as a humiliation. Then, one needs to ask for help. Even more humiliating. Then, there is a long, humiliating fight. But humility lets us get out of this mess of the addiction. Become stronger, greater, return to normal life. Humility can set you free. Especially, when you reach the very bottom of your existence.
Humility is the fundament for self-restraint and avoiding the overgrowth of ambition, power hunger, wealth hunger, etc. It is indispensable to live a truly happy life. To avoid hungers and lusts that cannot be satisfied. It allows to accept failures and prevents losing one’s head due to successes. Perhaps it is the lack of humility that causes the contemporary (western) people to cure their unhappiness and depression with such amount of pharmaceuticals. Maybe it would be better to teach children humility instead of feeding them with antidepressants later. Besides, when everyone is assertive, the assertiveness means nothing. Only our world gets worse.
The lack of humility in a contemporary person’s life is the “me first” approach. The behavior of an egoist. Modern people simply do not accept boundaries. Any. At all. They want everything to be as they demand it. A very destructive approach. For oneself and for the family.
Humility helps in business, negotiations, in every serious task. But in the world, which motto is: “Be successful, be a winner, there is no second place!”, humility is usually nonexistent. Finally: life of an individual is not a life of a society or the mankind. Civilizations do not need humility. Individuals – on the contrary.
Little children, who do not know yet what a humiliation is, are fountains of happiness. They try everything without the fear of “making an idiot of oneself”. They are not being paralyzed by the fear of “what will other people think, if I fail?”. The virtue of humility, understood as the careless acceptance for humiliation, could make us free and happy.
On the other side, the fear of humiliation is a strong power over us, that we give to others. We often choose a bad solution, cause the good one happens to be a humiliation in the eyes of others. We know, we choose wrong, yet we are unable to suffer the humiliation connected with the better choice. And this way, we’ve just made ourselves the slaves of our own fear.
I know, it is easy to write such things. And much harder to live according to such advice. But if we realize how much do we lose in our lives; how much we could win; if only we would practice the virtue of humility a little more often. Maybe not everyday, at the beginning. But practice makes perfect. As everything else, humility becomes easier with every step. And the example of David the king shows that humility may be practiced even by those, who in the common opinion, should behave with pride and dignity. Cause the true virtue shows strong will, courage and therefore is always respected. It adds to glory, not subtracts from it.