What Makes A Good Human?: Humility

It is with pride that I introduce the next important quality to being a good human.  Well not too much pride.  I mean I could be wrong.  This is all just my opinion after all.  Anyway it’s humility.  Out of all the seven deadly sins, the one considered the worst and the one in which all others can stem from, it is pride.  It was pride that caused Lucifer’s fall into Hell in the Bible.  Pride, ego, conceit, whichever turn you prefer to use all of these are ultimately harmful to an individual and society.  When the self, or when a group puts themselves above others, saying they are better, failing to notice the achievements of others, and excessively admires themselves this is a recipe for disaster.  A lack of empathy, narcissism, bullying, oppression all stem from conceit.  Humility is the cure for this disease.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” – Mark 9:35

Humility in practice can be difficult to achieve, however.  For instance, we know that having a positive self-esteem can be beneficial for increased happiness and confidence.  So isn’t having some pride important?  Should I not be proud of my accomplishments?  And what about the other end of the spectrum?  Should I go around saying “I’m not worthy, I’m but a speck of dust at the bottom of your shoe, I shall default to your wisdom, intelligence, and might?”  This is not humility either.  It’s either not genuine, or simply fear.  Humility is not submission.  Humility does not ask us to put ourselves beneath others, only to consider the possibility.  Anyone we meet regardless of age, status, race, gender, etc., may have something to teach us. They may be doing something in a better way that we are not.  They may have a piece of wisdom about something that we do not have.  It asks to consider the possibility that we may enjoy a privilege that they do not and to understand that should that privilege be taken away, we may be no better than anybody else. Humility asks to accept the fact that we may be different but no better or worse and thus is a seed for equality.

“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” – Proverbs 11:2

Humility is challenging to master because of its subtlety.  It does not eliminate pride, but it tempers pride.  There’s a difference between telling someone you are a good teacher, and that you are the best teacher.  This is why “excessive” admiration of self is included in the definition of pride.  So you may become an expert in something, but you can admit that someone might know more.  You can admit that you might not know everything.  You can admit that you might have been wrong about something.  Humility doesn’t prevent us from being confident and proud of our accomplishments but it simply reminds us that we are far from perfect, that we can still grow and learn.  Humility feeds into curiosity in this way, and then curiosity can feed back into humility.  As we continue to learn new things we may realize we didn’t know as much as we thought we did, thus humbling us.

The servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say words of peace. – Surah Al-Furqan 25:63

Humility is probably one of the central tenets of every major religion; speaking to the dangers of pride and the importance of being humble before others and before God.  I feel that one of positive aspects of God is to be a constant reminder that there are forces more powerful than yourself in the universe.  As an atheist we can get our feelings of humility through science itself.  One cannot help but feel small in the context of a universe that science has shown to be quite large and magnificent.  We know we are mostly helpless against major disasters like hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and volcanoes.  We know we are the product of evolution, one of many animals and plants on this planet and that we must share it.  Evolution teaches us that we are specially adapted to our environment, but so is every other species and thus we have no more right to life than any other. Our actions impact others and ourselves, and we must be careful not to have too much conceit as a species lest we bring about the end to our own existence or the existence of other species.  Science by its very nature is humble, because it is constantly skeptical, constantly asking questions, constantly self-corrects as it moves forward.  It can never be too big for its britches because it usually isn’t long before someone comes along and improves, refines, or disproves an idea already established.  And this is why those who have fundamental religious views can never truly be humble, because if you are in position that you are so certain that you are correct that no other well-evidenced idea has the ability to change your mind then humility is not one of your strong suits.  Humility is also accepting the possibility that you might be wrong, perhaps even about some very important things you believe in.

Be humble, be harmless,
Have no pretension,
Be upright, forbearing;
Serve your teacher in true obedience,
Keeping the mind and body in cleanness,
Tranquil, steadfast, master of ego,
Standing apart from the things of the senses,
Free from self;
Aware of the weakness in mortal nature. 

-Bhagavad Gita

Another important aspect of humility comes about in the aspect of love.  For most of us we have our strengths and weakness, but when entering into a relationship it is easy to put our defenses up, to make positive impressions, and to be our best self.  This is a difficult illusion to keep up, and some are better than others.  We can fearful of exposing our weaknesses and faults.  However, if we really want someone to love us for who we are, we must be genuine.  Humility tears down the walls of conceit and gives way to revealing our vulnerability.  This is often the scariest part of any relationship because when someone sees your vulnerability they can exploit it and really hurt you.  Humility is there to remind you that neither you or the person you love is perfect. And for someone to truly love you for who you are, such humble exposure to each other is, I believe, a necessary part of a long lasting, loving relationship.

It is humility that exalts one and favors him against his friends. – Kipsigis Proverb (Kenya)

Can one be too humble? Yes.  There are times when at least the appearance of confidence, and/or decisiveness is important.  There are times when you may have to take charge.  There are times when you are the smartest or most capable person in the room.  Being humble to the point where your self-esteem is so negatively impacted that you fail to recognize your own accomplishments is harmful.  Humility to the extreme can often just seem self-deprecating and is not a strong quality to have. Humility’s role is to always be there, hovering, and keeping us from getting too complacent.  Humility keeps us vigilant.  Humility reminds us we may have more to learn.  Humility helps us love better.  Humility helps us recognize that we are finite and have limits.  The most wonderful thing about humility is that while it erodes pride, ego, conceit, whatever you want to call it, it is at the same time very empowering.  I believe it draws good people to you, and surrounds you with love and friendship; people you can trust. It also empowers by giving you a sense of gratitude for all the blessings, good fortune, and love that you have in your life.  When you are genuinely humble you know that life isn’t always in your hands and that one must take time to be thankful for what you have.  This is something we all need to do more often.

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Just a number

I hit that age on this past Sunday.  The big 4-0.  I celebrated in in a fashion that can be best described as lame.  But more aptly as a new parent, in the middle of the semester with work to do.  I relaxed,  had some delicious waffles and stayed in my pajamas most of the day except when I had to go take out the garbage.  Normally I do that in pajamas too, but it was cold and the snow was a bit deep. 🙂

The age I am sure doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it did to my parents or my grandparents.  There is a good chance it will not be on average the half way point to the end.  We stand on the precipice of some amazing advances in science (as perhaps anybody could say I suppose from any time) that may allow us to live longer lives.  Society makes a big deal of round numbers in our base 10 numbering system.  Personally I think perfect squares would have been a numerically more satisfying way to mark off “big” birthdays.  You have a lot of them while you are young, but thankfully get much further apart as you get older.  So I’ve decided to fear the age 49 instead. 🙂  Society tells me there is something special about 40 so I thought it was a good time to reflect and so I gave in to society and tried to take a look at my life.

The reality is that today is only a few days different from when I was in my 30’s and honestly I loved my late 30’s.  There is a certain peacefulness that comes in your late 30’s when you’ve sort of experienced a good portion of the crap that life throws at you so that it doesn’t really throw you for a loop anymore.  Things unexpected happen, but I guess you just learn to expect the unexpected.  Things don’t seem quite as hard.

When I was a teenager I saw the person I wanted to be, but I felt like that person was trapped inside.  It was only once I moved away from home and took my own path in life that the person I wanted to be has come out.  I think I’ve become that person, but I am better than what I envisioned because when I was a teenager I saw that person as an endpoint.  But for any human being who walks through the world there is no end to the journey.  You will always change. At least you always should.  Most importantly I’ve learned how to see the ways in which I want to be better and have the patience to realize that these things don’t happen overnight.  I have given myself the identity of an unfinished project and that is who I always will be.  Because I’m comfortable with that, I think that has given me the ability to enjoy the moment that always worry about the future.

Of course just having a child gives one much more pause for that.  I am sure there are many at my age who are close to seeing their children move out into the world on their own.  For me that journey is just beginning.  In some ways it’s tiring to think about.  Thinking about how old I’ll be when my son graduates high school and all those other landmarks events in a child’s life.  Wondering whether I’ll even see grandchildren if my son chooses to have children and if he waits as long as I do.  But mostly it’s rejuvenating.  At 40 I get to see through the eyes of the young.  At 40 I am reminiscing about my childhood in ways I have never done before.  And if I wasn’t so sleepy I’d feel so completely young right now. 🙂  I’ve decided though, what does sleepiness have to do with the joy in my heart.  And much of the sleepiness is of my own making.  He is sleeping right now and I could too, and simply wake up with him when he needs fed.  But I love just being able to look at him, to watch him sleep.  To be reminded that there is peacefulness, and the simple joys in this world that we forget far too often.

And there is nothing like having a child that makes you take stock of who you are.  That peacefulness that he represents is because is innocent.  Unaware of hate, and racism, and all the things that make the weight of the world seem so heavy.  His shoulders are completely free of it all.  I think we all know a time will come when that innocence is lost.  I get why people try to preserve it as long as they can.  There are things in life that you cannot unlearn or forget, and so it is almost with envy that I look at my child.  I do not begrudge him though because all will happen in its own time.  And maybe it is only in our eyes that we see them so free of the pain we all carry about the harshness of the world.  But perhaps tears over being hungry or a wet diaper is no different than the tears we shed over death, misery, and tragedy.  Our pain is all relative to what we know.  Nevertheless, knowing what is to come and what he will learn, I must look inward.  Knowing that I will be one of his primary examples of what a man is.  He will learn so much just from watching me.  So I know that I must continue strive to be a better man, because the world needs better men.  Gender inequality still exists in almost all corners of the world and even in the freest of societies.

I shall end this off with the obligatory advice that my 40 years of wisdom has brought me and that is simply to tell you to embrace change.  Take it to heart.  Change is evitable and so if you embrace it, it becomes as comforting and secure as anything else.  Life passes us by when we trade away change for the security of the static and predictable.  Variety is truly the spice of life.  Keep trying new things.  Learn something new.  Get inspired.  You will find that time begins to slow down and then you won’t wake up when day and you’ll be 40 or 50 or 60, because you will have enjoyed each moment.  And remember one of the best ways to enjoy each moment is to make each moment better for others.  I am well aware that I am truly blessed for where I grew up, and the family and friends I have had along the way.  Always share that joy if you have been fortunate enough to have that joy shared with you.

Reflection

Criticism can be difficult to deal with.  We all want to believe the best about ourselves.  It may be that the cricism is false and/or unwarranted, it may be right on the money, or somewhere in between.  It’s always a mistake to just ignore it however, because there is little chance for you to become a wise person.  The act of reflection is important to the process of change even if you decide that the criticism was false.  I’ve always been one to reflect very deeply on my emotions and it has always led to more understanding about myself and about others.

In those moments in which realize you still have a lot of growing to do one gets filled with a moment of sadness, but one has only to remind oneself that we are all on a journey and that we have to forgive ourselves for not being exactly who we want to be.  My sense of self-worth is perhaps as strong as anyone and it constantly fights to surprise the virtue of humility.  One day I would like to incorporate humility into my sense of self-worth, instead of forgetting to be humble.  For now I will have to have to be proud of the fact that through reflection I can recognize my weaknesses and have faith that I will change for the better as I feel I have always done in the past.

Game, Set, and Match

“Nothing in the world is harder than convincing someone of an unfamiliar truth”  – said by Kvothe in A Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Every person on the planet can agree on one thing.  The world could be a better place.  For those of us who strive towards equality, wish to reduce human suffering, and care about the planet as a whole the world looks fairly messed up.  Some people  ignore the problems.  That’s a bit selfish perhaps, but the weight can be a lot to bear and we all have our limits, so who am I to judge?  Some people are definitely selfish because instead of trying to fight it they simply become part of the problem.  Trying to get a share of what they think is theirs.  If the world is going to be unfair then why not do whatever it takes to be a winner and not a loser?  In recognizing that we are a cooperative species, to me the fight to making the world more fair is always worth it even if the goal is never achieved and feels like a continual uphill battle that sometimes gets steeper and not gentler.  As a whole, we are simply better when we are working together to solve problems.  Problems do arise, even ones not of our own making.  Even ones that do arise because of our own making we can’t always blame ourselves, because hey nobody’s perfect and hindsight is 20/20 (at least we hope).

In this age of information and social media the amount of people that can be in contact with each other has expanded exponentially.  As a result we see the vast array of opinions out there.  Some people are clearly uneducated about the subject but seem very excited that they can say something and somebody will see it.  Some people make comments simply to anger people and cause an outrage or what is known as being a troll and this has been a topic of much discussion lately.  How we deal with people who make inflammatory comments or are very hostile towards the author of an article or another person commenting on a thread.  Interestingly inflammatory comments that support the view of a particular piece is not seen as negative, only the person who disagrees.  I would argue that if you read an article that say expresses a Democratic point of view and in the comments you say something like “Just another example that Republicans are pieces of shit” then you are just as bad as anybody you consider a troll in the ensuing comments.

Spurned by a few incidents in the recent past and also by this excellently written article about making better arguments in politics I wanted to express my thoughts about how we might be able to engage people we disagree with in a more meaningful way.  The quote that starts this article is something that just struck me as the wisest words ever written when I read them and speaks to why if you like to debate and engage people with different points of view, why you are rarely successful.

Picture from Amazon.com

The article that I linked in the previous paragraph talks about biases we have.  For a very comprehensive look at our biases and beliefs I also strongly recommend reading the The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer.  It’s a brilliantly constructed book and very educational.  His argument is that we believe first and rationalize later.  I think your immediate intuition sees the truth in that.  Right now you might think well that’s what the other guy does, but if you are really honest with yourself you’d realize you do it too.  It takes a lot of discipline to let your reasoning side take over, and suppress that “gut feeling” to believe what you think is right.  As a result of this tendency to believe first and then rationalize those beliefs, when absorbing a new piece of information we tend to see it in a light that supports our beliefs rather than negate them.

Another bias we have that is the main part of the article is the self-serving bias.  The idea that in order to protect our self-esteem or sense of self-worth we must reject ideas that make us feel like we are wrong about something.  As the article says is we are wrong about one thing, then what else might we be wrong about, and then how do we deal with the idea of not being as smart as we think we are?  This is why I think one of the most important human virtues we can have is humility as I wrote about in a previous blog post.  Being wrong about something is a tough thing to deal with.  What is strange to me is that I think we can all agree that we’ve experienced being wrong before.  If you reflect on your life you’ll realize you actually got through it and you are actually okay.  Nevertheless we still tend to not deal to well with it in the moment.  Just like dealing with addiction, admitting you have a problem is the first step. 🙂  In this case, don’t worry because everybody has these biases and so everybody has this problem.  So I would like to provide what I think is a helpful guide to getting people to see things from your point of view.  And if right now you are asking, “Why should I listen to this guy?”  Well because quit frankly I’m right dammit! 😉

Be the person you would like others to be

Painting by Miles Halpern

Don’t you hate it when someone is not sympathetic to you and the oppression or struggles you face?  It makes you angry, it makes you not really like that person, and it makes you frustrated.  So what should your response be?  Most people seem to respond by being equally dismissive to others and their problems.  What if, however, you tried to remain that sympathetic and compassionate person you hoped the other person would be?  What if you said “I’m sorry you can’t understand how the incident made me feel, and even though I don’t know why you can’t be sympathetic to my struggles I sincerely hope that you never have to feel the way that I do right now.”  If someone cannot demonstrate compassion for your genuine reason for being angry about something or being hurt about something, being afraid of something, or whatever is causing a negative emotion that is all the more reason to give sympathy towards them in return.  Give them an example of what sympathy and empathy is all about.  Maybe nobody has ever showed them any and so they literally don’t know it’s value or what it’s about.  Maybe they had an ultra-chauvinistic father who never allowed them to show their feelings and were always told “Buck up and be a man you pussy!”  Imagine growing up with that all your life.  How much compassion would you have as an adult?  Gandhi said “Be the change you’d like to see in the world” and so if you feel your worldview is superior in making this world a better place, make sure that you are genuinely being the type of person you would like to see in others.

Also haven’t you ever had someone in your life who you really respected because they seemed like a good person.  You admired them.  You wanted to be like them.  You are more likely to cause a change in someone’s behavior by being a positive role model rather than someone who berates them for their ideas.  Why would anyone want to be like someone who just belittles people for their beliefs even when those beliefs are misguided.  Because to the person with those beliefs…well they believe it and thus think they are not misguided.

Make sure you have a good sense of self-worth

What’s this you say?  I thought this was the problem.  The article I linked actually talks about using daily affirmations to enhance your self-worth as being important in being able to face things that you might be wrong about so that there is no net loss in self-worth.  I think the author glosses over this to almost make it seem like a trick you are using rather than genuinely building your self-worth.  If you have low self-esteem it can be hard to debate or argue with someone in a constructive manner.  Obviously if you barely value yourself, the few things that you do value about yourself, you will be even more afraid of losing.  Building a true sense of self-worth takes time and experience.  It takes an admission of your faults and the continual persistence to improve.  It takes trying not make the same mistake twice, even if it sometimes happen.  Practice humility, forgiveness, and spend time just observing and reflecting on those experiences before forming an opinion.  Then learn about how other people experience the world and try to pick out the commonalities in your experience rather than focusing on the differences.  Your self-worth will grow actually when you recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around you.  Self-worth and self-centered are completely different but often get tangled.

Make sure you respect the self-worth of others

From hellobeautiful.com

I’m not asking you to admit you’re wrong or say somebody else is right, but when you are humble and are willing to at least to consider the possibility that you might be at least partially wrong about your point of view, you will find that you move to a place of being inquisitive about where someone else’s point of view comes from.  This will lead you to ask more questions to see where that person is coming from.  It will help you get to know the person and that person now knows that you are interested in who they are, and are simply not just interested in making them feel like they are wrong.  After all who wants to listen and take seriously someone who is only interested in pointing out how right they are, and how wrong you are?  It doesn’t matter if you are actually right and that the other person is actually wrong.  People have a lot of wrong ideas not because they choose to be wrong but because they have been conditioned in their environment to see the world differently.

Recently there has been a lot of arguments in social media about racism and reverse racism.  What if someone is trying to advance the position that reverse-racism of blacks against whites is just as big of a problem as racism against black people?  You can respond angrily, dismissively, you can throw out all sorts of data and you’ll probably notice this makes no difference whatsoever.  What if instead you said “Hmmm…you know that hasn’t been my experience.  Can you tell me what makes you think that way?  Have you experienced racism as a white person?  If you have I am really sorry about that because I have personally experienced racism as well.  Maybe we could share our experiences.  Because I know how much it hurts when someone assumes something about you based on the color of your skin.”  In reality of that interaction with someone it doesn’t matter that as a whole blacks are not treated as equals and that white people do enjoy a position of privilege in society, because that person has simply been shaped by their experiences and their interpretation of those experience.  Sometimes being able to see the big picture is also a position of privilege.  It probably means you have had greater opportunities for education and slightly better income so that you have leisure time to explore a topic in more detail.  Perhaps parents who were interested in different points of view, valued diversity, etc.  Not everyone is lucky enough to have that.  Showing respect for a person and their experiences that led them to what they think is true today, is a better way to be heard by that person.  You might just tear down a few walls and find that you might not be that different at all.

Be willing to walk away

This seems pretty obvious.  A common piece of advice told by parents who want their child to not get into a physical fight.  It is true for fighting with words as well.  If you are hitting a wall with someone and trying harder each time, you will probably find that the wall is only getting thicker and harder.  You probably don’t even notice the tone of your dialogue change, but in my observation not just in other arguments I have watched, but when I’ve had a chance to look back at my own words I realized that the angrier I get, my logic gets worse and my tone becomes more inflammatory.  Being a more experienced teacher I now have more experience in just watching people who have trouble learning.  Being a good teacher is to find alternative ways in which someone can learn what you are saying and all those ways require patience and understanding.  So I think I am better at it that I was, but one can always improve.

More importantly of course getting angry, frustrated, and stressed because someone simply doesn’t “get it” is no way to live life.  It could be your inability to argue effectively, it could be your tone, and of course it could be completely and absolutely all their fault.  So what?  Maybe it is possible that they will simply never, ever agree with you so why waste your time and energy?  If you really feel convinced that you could make your argument better, then don’t keep arguing maniacally, but step away and reflect.  Pay less attention to the content of what you have said, but how you have said it.  Look less at the content of what they have said but try to pay attention to the experiences that may have led them to that line of thinking and try starting again.  The point is, if you feel yourself starting to get angry or frustrated, you should probably just stop.  Because I guarantee that you will not only not win, but you will have to deal with an emotion that can quite honestly ruin your day.

True change takes time

Photo by Alan Cleaver via flickr

Plenty of times in my life I have thought I have made no impact and sometimes weeks, months, or years later I see someone who has changed their position on something that they seemed so sure of in the past.  Most teachers will have stories of students who they couldn’t  motivate, were often at odds with, and felt sadness that they weren’t able to “reach” that student.  Only to get an e-mail a year later with an apology, or a revelation from that student, saying that they realize now how their behavior was wrong and that they appreciate you for trying to motivate them and believing in them.  Many times in the moment I have felt frustrated at being told I’m wrong about something.  I might even argue my case further even if I am out of additional legs to stand on.  Then I sit and think.  I read some more.  Realize that maybe something I read, or something somebody told me was wrong.  Or perhaps I realized that I hadn’t looked at a previous experience in the right way, and that I hadn’t perhaps learned all the lessons from it I should have.  Nowadays I try to let that person know that they were right about something and I was wrong.  In the past when my own self-esteem wasn’t strong I was often too embarrassed to admit it to that person.  That doesn’t mean that person didn’t have an effect on me.  So it may seem like wishful thinking, but don’t ever think your exchange didn’t have any value at all.  Because you never know.  It may happen years down the road, or the change may be ever so slight but because it caused someone to look in a different direction, it sets them down a path of learning they never would have gone down before without you.

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As a final thought I want to make it clear that I don’t pretend any of this is easy, or that I am the awesome person that I describe here.  I HATE being wrong and in my experience most other people do too.   Perhaps its because I have gotten older that the accumulation of things I have been wrong about has added up to such a proportion that it has humbled me.  I don’t know.  What we consider right and wrong however is a product of many things.  A function of space and time. Perhaps instead of thinking of yourself as being wrong about something, think of it as “Maybe I don’t know everything there is to know about something.  So maybe I’m not wrong, just not as right as I could be.” 🙂  Play nice and remember it’s a big sandbox.  There is room for a lot more people in it than you think. 🙂