People often equate humility with submissiveness, low self-esteem and low confidence. Not qualities suited to say being a leader or entertainer.
However, Jim Kong Kim (President of the World Bank) is a leader who recognises the value of humility. He says it allows him to ask for coaching of new personal skills and request feedback on his performance from his subordinates.
Sure, cockiness and arrogance can lead us into trouble. An inflated ego, showing off and seeking admiration can create high expectations that one cannot fulfil. But is a positive sense of self-respect, confidence and assertiveness that are not taken too far, actually compatible with humility? Can humility be a good thing?
Features of humility
So what do we mean by humility? You may associate humility with shameful experiences. I can recall many years ago on holiday waking up in my tent alone. My two sleeping companions were elsewhere. We had been drinking vodka the evening before and I couldn’t remember going to bed. But I was shocked to see I must have thrown up in the tent. I had to eat humble pie when I met up with my mates.
There seems to be several key features of humility according to June Tangney, professor of psychology, George Mason University
- An accurate sense of one’s skills
- The willingness to acknowledge mistakes, and gaps in one’s knowledge
- An openness to advice and new ideas, even if they contradict one’s assumptions.
- A capacity to ‘forget’ the self.
- An appreciation of the value of all things.
Humility and inferiority
It can’t be a bad thing to be able to take an honest and even-handed look at oneself – warts and all. Seems like this doesn’t require a sense of inferiority to others. The truth about oneself is solid rock – rather than shifting sand – on which one can start to build one’s character.
In fact a sense of inferiority may hinder humility. Psychologist Dr. Julie Exline points out:
“People may need a secure sense of personal worth before they can tolerate an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.”
You don’t need to feel inferior to others in order to humbly see yourself as a relatively small part in the larger scheme of things perhaps in comparison to the universe.
Are you willing to learn from others – your friends, work-mates, family members? And can you give credit where it is due? Those who are humble will not need to put others down to feel better about themselves. Also can you admit it when you need help?
Humility and pride
If you are an unassuming soul you probably may not impress people on first meeting. But they will probably take to you more than to the proud overbearing type of individual who doesn’t have the humility to admit when he’s wrong about something or whose boasting and showing off will eventually lose him friends.
Such an individual:
“places merit in good deeds .. and believes that all good originates in himself.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual philosopher)
People like this tend to think they deserve rewards on the basis of what they see as their own worth. Yet doesn’t true happiness come from wanting to do what is good and useful without having any concern with being well thought of by others or remunerated?
Swedenborg reports on a vision he experienced. He saw people cutting wood. They carried on doing this without tiring. This was their delusion.
“They seem to themselves to be cutting wood. This is exactly how it appears to them. I have spoken to them. When they are doing their work and are asked whether they are not tired out, they reply that they have not yet done enough work to be able to merit heaven.” (Emanuel Swedenborg)
He says that these people had confirmed themselves in the idea that they deserved credit for the good things they had done in life. Consequently, they believed they could save themselves from unhappiness and suffering by their own efforts alone. We are told that because they had led a conscientious life this mistaken belief would eventually start to fade and they would stop the wood cutting and be taken care of.
Humility and awareness of one’s limitations
Clearly we are all obliged to deal with the problems of living by making our own choices and trying to make the best of things. People who are aware of their own limitations soon realise that, of themselves, they can achieve very little. They are the first to put their hands up into the air and say – sorry I can’t do this without assistance. I need ideas and support from colleagues, family, friends. Even help from a force for good that is beyond my own limitations.
Have you ever had a feeling of surprise and admiration, evoked by an experience that is in some way inexplicable or that surpasses expectation? Perhaps it was something of the mystery of life or a fresh insight into familiar thing. By reminding us of our own limitations, a sense of wonder may lead to humility, reverence, and an appreciation of things that are greater than ourselves.
Humility of a tree branch
If you know anything about orchards you will know that one needs to cut off any withering branch of a tree not producing fruit. Might as well throw away and burn it for all the good it does. Also one should prune those branches that are okay so that they will produce more fruit. The obvious point is that no branch can bear fruit by itself. It must remain attached to the trunk.
Isn’t it the same with each of us? I would like to make the suggestion that it’s no use trying to live life as if we are unattached to the source of life. No good trying to go it alone. The branch needs to remain connected so that the tree’s energy and nourishment is working in the branch.
Isn’t the tree of life the source of our deeper motives and ideas? Some would say this spiritual source can be recognised as a cosmic love and wisdom that pervades the universe, if only we would acknowledge and receive its inflow.
Copyright 2017 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems
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