Americans particularly are not very humble people. (Can I have my award for Understatement of the Year now?)
I can only speak for my own culture but I think in the modern day humility has some very negative connotations and is unconsciously associated with weakness.
Much more than that, we respond to arrogance and insistence as if it’s a strength and representative of rightness. And the more privileged someone is, the more cultural messaging they get that they are right. The more privileged someone is, the more power one has to bleach one’s life of any hints that we’re wrong.
We also regularly advise each other to ‘fake it ’till you make it.’ Doctors have elaborate Latin-derived medical terms meaning ‘we don’t know what’s wrong with you.’ We shun ambiguity and have a lot of insecurity about not being ‘in the know,’ and we shame people who lack certain kinds of knowledge, perpetuating a cycle of various kinds of exclusivity and elitism from high school cliques to postgraduate academics.
In both the art and the business worlds, the difference between the amateurs and the professionals is simple:
The professionals know they’re winging it.
The amateurs pretend they’re not.
Debasement is Sketchy, I’m Staying Up Here
A lot of us have pictures of humility that involve bowing and scraping, genuflecting, maybe even going total prostrate on the floor before someone else.
There can also be religious connotations, where humility is seen as something we practice only toward whatever deity, spirit, or aerial pasta entity we think of as a ‘higher power.’ (This phrase is problematic for me, but that’s another story and shall be told at another time.
It doesn’t help that humility and humiliation sound very alike and share the Latin root word ‘humilis’ meaning ‘low.’
The Macmillian dictionary defines ‘humility’ as “a way of behaving that shows that you do not think that you are better or more important than other people,” and ‘humiliation’ as “the unhappy and ashamed feeling that you get when something embarrassing happens.” I like these definitions because they don’t focus on ‘low’ when it comes to humility, it’s more equitable, which is where truly strong and genuine humility lies.
We think of humility as not co-existing with self-confidence and knowledgeability. I’m very happy to tell you that this is 100% Grade-A bullshit. Humility is not shame. It is not debasing yourself or prostrating yourself before others or allowing others to treat you as a doormat. Nor is it about enabling bad behavior, or being ‘wrong.’ Humility is an allowing of others’ validity. Humility involves having good filters, and knowing what are good sources for information.
Genuine humility is strength. It enlarges what you’re able to learn and know and perceive of the world and the people around you. It enables you to be a force for good in the lives of those you love when they are going through the worst experiences imaginable.
I know this, because I support and am supported by the people that are among the most stigmatized, misunderstood, shunned, and disdained. I’m talking about people who struggle with issues and traumas and conditions and identities are deal-breakers for the vast majority of people.
People like me.
What Humility Means to Me
I’ve mentioned before in this blog that the three qualities that characterized the best support I’ve ever gotten were compassion, empathy, and humility. Those things can be kind of nebulous, so what I really liked were the discussions of what those things meant to us. We would share and read each other’s descriptions of these three things, stories of times when we had felt them from others or given them to others.
For me humility has meant working through my insecurities—an ongoing process to be sure! It’s been about becoming strong enough to admit that I don’t know something, at least to myself. It’s been practicing willingness to learn, and shifting the fear I feel toward curiosity. And I know I can feel both, and that curiosity keeps fear from completely shutting me down.
If I’m afraid that ‘X’ will happen, and I focus on that, fear fills the world from edge to edge. If I make a little tiny space of curiosity, like a pocket of air under the ice on a lake, and be curious about what else might happen, what other influencing factors I may not know about, what I can do, then I’m not completely frozen and drowning in my fear.
This is by no means something I’m perfect at, but I’m okay with that. I hold dear to my heart the motto of the Chicago Recovery Alliance: ‘Any positive change.’ (There is more to this story to be told at another time.)
My humility exists alongside my confidence in what I know that I know. Humility for me just means that there is always more for me to learn, not that everything I know may be invalid. Humility has allowed me to question what I thought I knew and break through some serious cult brainwashing and mind control, and come to trust myself more, not less.
Humility involves genuine assessments of my limitations and strengths, which helps me take better care of myself. It’s given me better emotional boundaries, both acknowledged and asserted; I don’t have to take it as a sign that I am wrong when something I know is incorrect.
Humility and Privilege
As I said, the more privileged one is, the more messages one gets that one is always right. This is so dangerous and damaging, and it’s limiting. It leads to so much unnecessary pretending and judgment of one another based on things that don’t actually speak to the value of a person, like how much they know about ‘X’ topic or how well they spell. This reinforces all kinds of oppression and exclusion.
Acting arrogant, condescending, faking it—these all stem from insecurities we have. I’ve done it. I’ve recently cringed at it in my first vlog channel video. Insecurities are the real weaknesses we carry with us. They are things that tell us we’re not good enough. It’s ironic that in getting so attached to being fundamentally Right, we’re actually covering for how scared we are that we are fundamentally Wrong.
Arrogance leaves us lonely, insecure, stuck, and stupid. If you’ve decided no one can teach or tell you anything, you have cut yourself off from reality, the possibility and vibrancy of life and learning.
Genuine humility involves consciously recognizing the limits of what you can know and what you should not pretend to know. This is a crucial to treating with respect those who are less privileged than you in one way or another on the privilege spectrum.
Others’ pain and oppression can be scary. It can trigger guilt, shame, our insecurities about our own lives, our worth as people. Rather than taking that personally and making it about us, we can recognize that they are curators of the enormity of their lived experience, and that everything they share with us offers us the potential to learn and grow our understanding in some way, as long as we have the humility and skills to listen into what they are saying.
This may mean getting past defensive reactions and literal interpretations of what they say. It may mean asking for clarification in open-ended ways that are not loaded or coercing. Remember that no one is obligated to educate you, but by filling your life with the voices of people who are different to you, you drink in learning in a natural way.
Privilege lends itself to unknowingly getting away with things that hurt other people, and letting manners slide in the name of getting what we want. Asking permission is a sign of respect that a lot of people with one-down identities are denied. This is a very deep unfairness and insult to the humanity of the people impacted by our actions. And because of privilege we’re not even aware of the damage we’re causing. That same privilege protects us from that knowledge and gives us easy outs.
Asking questions that aren’t loaded or coercive is a sign of respect. Many of us, in my experience, have learned how to get what we want by subtly manipulating other people with the way we phrase things and ask questions, in order to accomplish things that are just as insulting and cruel in their impact as if we’d been straightforward, and make us untrustworthy even to ourselves. All this without any conscious machinations, just the instinct of a child knowing which parent will say yes to a request for ice cream and which won’t.
It can be uncomfortable to be in a place of not knowing or understanding. It’s frustrating to not get answers to questions when we’re used to things being explained to us with all politeness and deference. From the time we’re small, grades, degrees, and intelligence come to be equated with worth, so it can be excruciating to admit that we don’t know.
But when we truly don’t know, we’re not fooling anyone but our own self by pretending. We’re also likely pissing off the people around us. Especially those who could help us the most.
There is so much we can learn from listening to people who are different to us. We limit ourselves when we become snobs about anything. We limit ourselves with rigid unbending certainty.
And we increasingly alienate people, and feel frustrated when reality doesn’t match up with that certainty. A lot of things we unconsciously generalize from our own experience aren’t shared. Our expectations hurt us and others when we don’t allow for the messiness and realness of real life.
But I can tell you this:
Humility Saved My Life.
There have been many times in my life, including now, where things have been overwhelmingly painful and too much to bear. With everything I knew and know, the only logical conclusion I could possibly make was that the future held further deterioration until the pain was too much to bear. It has often seemed there was no way out and no way anything could ever get better. Sometimes the only thing that made sense to my thinky-brain was to give up. Things were shit and got worse and worse for years.
There’s a difference between ‘knowing’ and having that knowledge penetrate to a deeply felt level, where something we’ve abstractly ‘known’ for years suddenly becomes real like the Velveteen Rabbit. It takes time, and can produce awe and ‘eureka’ moments.
It became profoundly real for me that I didn’t know everything. Whatever I thought was going to be the future could be affected by countless chaotic variables beyond anyone’s capacity to know, understand, and factor in. Chaos meant that awful things happened to me, for no reason other than shit happens. It also meant that if I had tried everything I knew and nothing got better, there was still an infinite amount of stuff I could learn and try and experience.
Claustrophobic despair eased. I won’t say that the very next thing I tried made everything better. But that liberating, intensely fertile and vibrant not-knowing meant that I opened up to the possibility of anything making it better. That’s when things started to haltingly (and with much backsliding and getting lost and backtracking) clamber out of the Swamp of Despair.
All the conventional things that people try under my circumstances either did nothing or made things much worse. I’m not conventional in any way. The things that work for me are not the sort of things anyone would recommend.
Even if people had suggested I take up hula hooping as low impact exercise to ease some of the symptoms of fibromyalgia, for instance, I am enraged by unsolicited advice. It is an absolute dealbreaker for me, not only for trying the thing recommended, but for all future contact with the person who told me what to do.
That’s my boundary. I know this about myself. I know this is healthier for me than the idiot humility I used to practice, where I valued my truth so little and tried to believe and do everything told to me. This is crazy-making, especially in a cult full of crazy people.
I know now, deep in my core, that I know myself better than anyone else does or ever could. That certainty, that trust of myself, doesn’t conflict with my humility. Nor my awareness that there is more to learn about myself. It can be exciting and motivating, on my good days.
Limitations of Knowledge
When you are dealing with people who are different—and especially less privileged than you in some way, be it gender identity, sexual orientation, class, ability, nationality, religion, education, age, upbringing, mental illness, survival of assault or other trauma—believe and behave as if they know more than you do about their experience. That is respect.
What they share with you may be very uncomfortable. You may feel defensive, threatened, compelled to argue. It may directly conflict with what you’ve heard from other members of that group. No matter how we group people, and what similarities we share, every individual is individual unto themselves and they know their lived experience better than anyone.
What you hear may conflict with your personal worldview. It can be hard for people who have had the whole world of cultural messaging supporting and promoting their identity and experiences as universal to break that picture and no longer base everything on those deeply ingrained images and ideas as a universal measure of reality.
Listening without trying to work out what you’re going to say is respect. Asking without agenda is respect. Admitting that you don’t know is respect. And not only does it demonstrate respect, but I have much more respect and trust for people who practice these things.
Practice humility by not comparing your experience to someone else’s. This is a problematic habit we’re socialized to do to sympathize instead of empathize and ‘feel into’ what others are communicating about their experiences and pain. But by doing that we make it about us. We take it personally, and that can lead to us feeling like the pain is ours to do something about and feel inappropriate ownership of those experiences. We also take up space they need to feel how they feel, and live their lives and processes in the ways that are best for them.
Intellectual understanding blocks empathy. The goal of empathy is not to understand fully what the other person is feeling or take it into ourselves. The goal of empathy is to be fully present with that person, where they are. Not where you want them to be, or where you imagine them to be. Empathy is in service to where they are in all its messy human glory.
Genuine humility is receptivity to more than what you currently know and are, and experiencing that not merely before any religious or spiritual power you believe in but alongside fellow human beings.
It involves the strength of knowing yourself and operating out of that core you-ness stripped of all pretense and false beliefs. Who you are when there is no one there. Who you are when the worst has happened and you have lost innocence and trust in what you knew. Who you are at that time in your life when you were disillusioned and disenchanted and retreated into yourself, and found that underneath the chaos, there was still a you that was not obliterated or mutated beyond recognition, although some of it may have been things about you that had been unknown to you.
When you have that core, whatever that is for you, the thing no one can take away from you, then you can practice the humility of strength. You can be receptive to being mistaken, to getting things wrong, because it’s no longer a threat to your identity and who you are.
We need more strong humility. We need more whole people out there answering pain with respect and receptive listening. We need to have it for ourselves and our loved ones, to have respectful and equitable relations across differences, to provide real support in the face of unimaginable pain, to grow beyond who we are right now, and to model this humility for one another.
Plus it’s really fucking cool to learn new stuff. It just is. I know this because of my learnings.
(I never said I was perfect at humility!)
I give you this, if you’d like to ponder—and I would love to hear your answers in the comments below:
How do you define of humility? What comes to mind for you? Where did those images, ideas, experiences, memories come from?
When you read how I describe strong humility, are there other words or ideas that seem to match up to those ideas better for you?
When have you experienced different kinds of humility? How did they feel? What happened, for you and anyone with you?
What do you want for yourself?