“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
— Ernest Hemingway
Humility is a way of acknowledging the universal values of equality and tolerance. Those who have humility ingrained in their lives are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They know their moral deficiencies, whether it is selfishness, hardheartedness, or other negative traits. They also understand how their actions affect others, and feel ashamed about it. This realisation induces a sense of profound humility.
True love is free from bondage. By realising God’s love, we develop humility. When we develop humility, we no longer suffer from pride — of wealth, status, knowledge or power. Humility is one of a constellation of qualities and virtues — including tolerance and patience — that we tend to admire. Simultaneously, we disdain opposite qualities such as arrogance and haughtiness. Large dollops of humility congeal in due course into a strong and durable moral template.
Humility comes from the Latin word “humilis”, which literally means “low”. It is just a stone’s throw from “humiliation”. Humility needs to be properly balanced in the complex modern world or else excessive doses of it may eventually soften into obsequiousness and self-subjugation which can be detrimental in certain circumstances. But genuine humility is a reflection of neither weakness nor insecurity. It implies a respectful appreciation of the strengths of others and a relaxed sense of confidence that doesn’t require external symbolism.
“True humility does not know that it is humble. If it did, it would be proud from the contemplation of so fine a virtue.” said Martin Luther. Groucho Marx put it more pithily. “Humility,” he emphasised, “is a strange thing. The moment you think you’ve got it, you’ve lost it.”
Our philosophy and religious texts emphasise humility as a trait and principle that deserves to be revered. Confucius considered humility as “the solid foundation of all virtues” — and possibly the key to achievement of lasting success in both worldly and moral life. The nineteenth-century English writer John Ruskin wrote beautifully: “I believe that the first test of a great man is his humility… Really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them.”
The scriptures keep reminding us that we are tenants and not owners of the earth. We are here for a short while only. It is this sense of transience that creates not only humility, but also the knowledge that we must leave behind things, if not better, certainly not worse than they were when we found them.
Many of us are mistaught by society that humility symbolises weakness, but that’s not the case at all. In Buddhism, we are shown that humility is actually one of our greatest strengths. It means that we recognise and respect who we are presently, and that we can do this for others also.
There is a thin boundary between order and chaos. Humility is characterised by how well we contend with the shift between order and chaos. Humility helps in navigating them with a sense of poise. Humility must become absolutely integral to our moral personality to make us remain humble and not succumb to the illusions our ego lays out before us in our everyday human transactions. As the sages advice us: Let that ego go, so that you radiate kindness, humility and compassion. All of us value confidence and strength. But we create greater value by embracing humility and vulnerability, the physically weaker but morally stronger counterparts.