The Virtue of Humility

Humility. A quiet and conspicuous virtue.

To jump right in, I believe that how people relate to one another and themselves is as dynamic and mysterious as it is observable and lawful. So these experiments serve as a means to find out more about the world, the people in it, and how I relate to them.

This week I’ve chosen the virtue of humility for me to practice. I’ve done this because I feel that humility is a virtue which requires two things I would like more of in my life. Vulnerability and authenticity. Humility can be a challenge to describe. What is it to be humble? Why would we want to exercise its practice in the first place? Doesn’t it make you seem weak, you might ask? Is that not being submissive, or to talk yourself down and out?

Well, type ‘define humility’ into Google and you will a bland definition about subservience.

The truth is that humility is at once much more difficult than simple subservience and worth infinitely more.

How to strike the balance between personal power and respecting others has been a question I’ve held for myself awhile now. And I think that humility is the key I’ve been missing. Often I would shun others to hold off having their views pressed on me, or in the past I would follow that process of converting others myself to the way I saw best to live life. I realised it wasn’t getting me the results I was looking for. So to figure this out I began experiment with being vulnerable whilst saying what I believed to be true for myself. This balance that takes some work. I will say it’s led me to get a much firmer grasp of the limits of where I lose the courage to speak my truth and the edges of where I am authentic. Discovering where you shrink back requires sensory acuity and persistence. It requires you to be present, to pay attention and to say things which are often uncomfortable but true. This is a practice we all benefit from, and it’s one that has brought with it a series of challenges and benefits. This is an ongoing practice, like cultivating crops, or training your body.

From my initial findings from practicing humility I’m inclined to believe it’s a kernel to a good and well-lived life. Because humility requires that we be both vulnerable and authentic, it leads to connection. And connection is the seed from which growth and fulfillment spring. For example, many people feel a sense of emptiness in their lives because they are unwilling to be vulnerable or are fearful of being authentic. Fear of rejection on the one hand. On the other, fear of being controlled. This keeps people closed and directing their efforts to resist or control others. A misuse of energy and intent. Behaviour like this leads to many an addiction and disconnection – a practice by which people distract themselves from themselves – no matter the consequences.

Though painful, the truth of you is far more fruitful.

Here are some more reasons why you might want to consider experimenting with humility in your own life:

If you are not willing to be a fool, to admit the limits of your learning and capabilities, people will struggle to trust you and will likely struggle against you.

This is because through being unwilling to show the vulnerability of humility, you are putting up a persona which is false. You are signalling that you tolerate dishonesty from yourself. That you perceive yourself as better or worse than others. People will sense this. Perhaps not straight away, but as the saying goes, the truth will out. So self-awareness and honesty are key aspects of humility, and allow us to access the support and opportunities we truly need.

Ego loss. Being vulnerable and wholly yourself creates a sense of connectedness with the world and others. It acknowledges the interrelationship of all things and your equal worth amongst them.

It’s good for your health to both acknowledge your worth and your humanity. Your darkess, your limits, your undeniable needs. I find myself far more relaxed, present and cogent in my life when I admit my limitations front and centre. When I speak the truth of my needs, for intimacy, for a place to stay, for a laugh and a joke, I find these things come to me. Likewise, when I hold to my sense of equal worth with other people (no matter who they are) I find I am treated likewise. This creates a sense of momentum and ease about who I am, and that feeling permeates what I do.

Humility is a prerequisite for learning and growth.

Those who know what you wish to know, have done what you wish to do, are very willing to help you, but only if you have the courage to be vulnerable and ask to be taught will you receive the lessons. And only if you are true to your authentic self will you create connections of rapport and reciprocity with those who can truly aid your growth. I myself am working to live this truth, rather than know it intellectually and not act upon it.

For example, I recently humbled myself to a stranger who had power over me. This man’s name is Steve. This kind man is hosting a colleague of mine and agreed to host me too for this week. Our first evening together consisted of a couple of somewhat tense conversations. Steve was unwilling to answer my questions, or share much of his life with me, despite me making attempts to build rapport – expressing curiosity about his life – admiring the selection of books he has on Medieval and English Literature, something I studied myself for many years. I expressed my appreciation for his many beautiful guitars and instruments. Yet he was disinclined to answer.

The next morning when we met, he hinted that I may be a drifter, lost at sea. As he said this, a passage from Tolkiene’s novel, Lord of the Rings came to mind.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

I recited it to him and then shared the first two passages of Book II from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, asking Steve if he would share with me his thoughts on them. In sharing with him these things I exposed myself to Steve’s judgment. And whilst he expressed it, at the same time held true to own values. After which, Steve attitude shifted. He became open to me.

As I continued to share with him my current perspective on the world, he began to do the same. Eventually offering me excellent advice on walking. And even suggesting a route for my upcoming pilgrimage to Schumacher in Devon. It turns out he has walked this way himself. Covering 18 miles a day it took them five weeks. This is vital information I have been looking for. But if I had not been humble enough to share with Steve something precious to me, something that he could judge me for, then we would likely have continued to be alienated from one another.

Humility has this great power. Not only does it release tensions and divert aggression – it channels that energy into respect and potentially, connection. When you are honest and vulnerable, it gives others permission to do the same. It’s in these moments of mutual vulnerability that mutuality, learning, and reciprocity occur.

So offer you the question, how would you humble yourself today?

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