I recently suffered a defeat in my professional life that was as painful as it was final. When you are in your 70s, it’s unlikely that time will allow for a closed door to reopen. As it is with all the twists and turns that we encounter in our lives, the emotional response to disappointments is totally an individual choice. I had options here. I could angrily blame myself. Blame others. Feel resentment. Or accept the result with humility and thankfulness. I chose the latter, and I’ll explain why.
We live in an era that glorifies and values unrepentant individualism. In Ayn Rand’s novel, “The Fountainhead,” the protagonist, Howard Roark, rails against the rising tide of collectivism. He is the author’s heroic template, one that remains today’s preferred archetype. In all competitive endeavors, it is “weakness” to accept anything less than total “victory.” In “Paradise Lost,” John Milton’s Satan, once a glorious angel, mutters defiantly, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.” Our former president, who exhibited unbridled pride as well as an inability to admit fault, was lauded in many circles as a “strong leader.” In sports, one of my favorite fellow Fordham alum, Vince Lombardi, promoted a philosophy of winning at all costs, discarding, as self-defeating doubt, any notion of humility. In our daily lives, we witness countless instances where empathy and selflessness take a back seat to self-interest and self-centeredness.
In my own life, I have always tried to embrace the forgotten virtue of humility. Would I be disproving my own point to say that I have not always been successful? Perhaps, but I have always made the effort. Contrary to the prevalent “macho” approach to life, practicing humility does not make you weak. It has been said that “humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
Since the time of Copernicus, the inhabitants of this planet have had to face the realization that our earth is not the center of the universe. Similarly, how many times have you heard a child scolded with the parental admonition, “The world doesn’t revolve around you.” As the Buddhists assert, any person who appreciates the interconnectedness of all beings, begins to understand one of life’s major truths.
When I first became enamored with the usefulness of philosophical thought, I believed nalvely, that most psychological disorders could be remedied by simply learning to think more clearly. Although I do not hold that belief any longer, I do assert that we are responsible for and in control of our emotional responses to life’s challenges. The foundation of today’s therapeutic practice is based on the proposition that by sharing your feelings with your therapist, you can together carve out a personal path to self-awareness and, consequently, emotional wellbeing. But why chose humility?
First, let us look at its antithesis: arrogance, over the top pride, self-centeredness. An arrogant person refuses to admit mistakes. A prideful person will not reexamine decisions, choices, or actions, which makes self-correction, self-improvement, and healing virtually impossible. Mistakes remain uncorrected, negative behavior is repeated, and hurt feelings never heal. I remember once when my dad made the mistake of telling my aunt something unflattering about her dress. The result was that my aunt and dad, both prideful people, did not speak for five years. We were forbidden from visiting my aunt and uncle during an entire half decade. How foolish was that?!!!
Second, let me describe to you what humility is not. It is not self-defeatism. It is not an abrogation of any thoughts of self-worth. It is not an invitation to depression or a surrender of all your dreams, aspirations, or goals. Instead, it is a positive reaffirmation of emotional intelligence and wisdom. It is an appreciation of what is truly important.
Third, a person who practices humility admits to mistakes and allows for their correction. Scientists, who let their pride and past practice prevent them from challenging a long-held paradigm, impede science’s ability to find new and better answers. Shedding any prideful allegiance to past beliefs, Einstein had no compunction in shattering old theories, and we are all better off as a result.
Fourth, humility recognizes the fact that we are all part of a social network. What happens to my fellow citizen is not done in isolation but involves me as well. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” denotes that exact sentiment. So, rather than framing your emotions around what happens to you and you alone, open your heart and celebrate the good fortune of others. By so doing, you have replaced despair and disappointment with insight and joy.
Fifth, humility can be a conduit for self-improvement. By staying humble, you can recognize the areas in your life that may need work. It allows you to become more resilient, more open to change, more accepting of life’s ups and downs, and less susceptible to depression and despair over events you often have little ability to control.
The good news is that the truly humble person has developed self-esteem and a level of self-awareness that is so deeply rooted in who they are, that they can see beyond their own self-interest. The Buddhist, for example, perceives, somewhat counterintuitively, that a strong self must exist behind the belief that “no self exists.” If you have succeeded in developing a true sense of who you are, humility and selflessness are the natural results.
My favorite advocate for humility, Mother Teresa, once opined, “it is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know who you are.” So, how do we practice humility? When you lose a competition, congratulate your opponent (and mean it). When you make a mistake or hurt someone else, apologize. Focus on the good fortune and positive attributes of others, rather than harboring jealousy or resentment. Avoid condescension, but rather, lend a helping hand to those who may need it. When you lose an election, be happy for the winner and that we have a democracy in the first place. Now, there’s a great start!