Practicing Humility – We are both significant and insignificant

We come nearest to the great when we are great in humility (Tagore)

How do you feel when you’re around someone who is incredibly intelligent, charming, witty, handsome, AND modest? Don’t you feel uncomfortable? That’s why I don’t have many friends. Yet, the world needs more geniuses with humility. After all, there are so few of us left.

Whoops, sorry about that. I couldn’t resist beginning with a little humor. Of course, despite my opening remarks, the opposite is true. It is arrogant, proud, and vain people that make us uncomfortable. They are like magnets that only repel. On the other hand, humble people attract us. That’s because they’re more interested in us than in themselves.

“Humility” comes from the Latin “humilis,” meaning “low” or “lowly.” It, in turn, comes from the Latin “humus,” meaning “ground” or “earth.” Those who are spiritually awake or aware cannot help but be humble. For aren’t we made from the dust of the earth? How can we stand before the universe and not be humble? The mystery that meets our gaze is more than the grandeur of the cosmos. It is also the dichotomy of man. For we are insignificant specks floating in a limitless sea. Yet, we can contain that sea in our minds. Therefore, we are both insignificant and significant at the same time. It’s very exciting to ponder, but we can never understand it. All traces of self-importance evaporate when we contemplate the vast unknown.

Reflecting on the ironies of life also keeps one humble. For example, if we look up the word “edible” in the Devil’s Dictionary (created by Ambrose Bierce), we find the following definition, “EDIBLE, adj. Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.” Remembering that we’re nothing but worm-meat goes a long way in deflating any pompous notion we have of our importance. The idea is to step back and see the big picture. When we do so, we realize that we’re just a single note in a magnificent symphony. Although we’re all insignificant, without us there would be no symphony. So, it’s back to that incredible dichotomy again. We are both significant and insignificant. Our significance brings us joy; our insignificance brings us humility (which brings us joy). When we are aware of our significance, we don’t feel the need to boast. When we are aware of our insignificance, we don’t boast. In either case we are humble. So, humility is the fruit of awareness.

The successes that we have achieved were not entirely of our own doing. Didn’t we have the help of our parents, teachers, and friends? What about the inspiration we received from books, magazines, newspapers, movies, and TV? What about the difficulties life gave us to make us stronger? We cannot succeed without the help of others. Yet, others can only help; we have to do the work. Because of the help we received from others, we cannot brag. But because of the effort we’ve made, we can enjoy the satisfaction, pleasure, and fruit of our labor.

Is Christ’s statement to “turn the other cheek” a message of strength or one of weakness? Meekness is not weakness. It is strength. How do we react when someone insults us? Do we feel the need to strike back? If we do, it is because we are weak. How can a few words threaten us, unless we are insecure? The strong of heart willingly accept abuse because they have compassion for the weaknesses of others.

Every time I visited a particular office, a senior executive would call me “baldy” and make disparaging comments. I acted as if I didn’t hear anything impolite and continued to treat him with respect and courtesy. Over time there was a remarkable change in his conduct. You see, he was 5’ 2″ tall and used to being “looked down on” by others. So, whenever he would meet someone new, he would make rude comments. It was his way of defending himself. He felt insecure and anticipated being called “shorty,” so he would make a preemptive attack. But after realizing I always treated him with respect, he no longer felt threatened and began to treat me, and others, with kindness. Isn’t making friends much better than making enemies? Viewed in this light, doesn’t Christ’s message make sense? Perhaps we should follow his advice, “Learn from me, for I am meek and lowly in heart.” (Matthew 11:29)

Still not convinced? Take it from someone who knows all about manliness and strength, Vince Lombardi, “Mental toughness is many things. It is humility because it behooves all of us to remember that simplicity is the sign of greatness and meekness is the sign of true strength. Mental toughness is spartanism with qualities of sacrifice, self-denial, and dedication. It is fearlessness, and it is love.”

Many of us are on a spiritual quest. We want to experience the love of God. But how can we if our minds are already filled with narcissistic self-love? For as the seventeenth century British poet Francis Quarles wrote, “If thou desire the love of God and man, be humble, for the proud heart, as it loves none but itself, is beloved of none but itself.” Before we can fill a glass with wine, we have to empty it of water. After filling it, let’s raise our glass of wine in a toast to humility, modesty, and meekness, the gateways to strength, compassion, and a joyous life.