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Humility: A Dirty Word?

Apr 12, 2008
What do you think of when you hear the word humility? What kind of images does it conjure up? Good? Bad? Would you consider humility a positive thing - something you might need more of?

Probably not, if you're like most people. In fact, the word has a lot of negative baggage attached to it. Most people see humility and think humiliation: getting yelled at by the boss in front of your co-workers, being dumped by your date in the middle of the high school prom. Why would you need more of that?

Of course, humility and humiliation are two very different things - despite their apparent similarity. And practicing greater humility is one of the best ways to bring about recovery from the addictions and handicaps we all struggle with. Don't believe me? Read on:

The confusion is not surprising. Both humility and humiliation have their root in the word humble, which Webster's defines as both (1) not proud, haughty or assertive, and (2) ranking low on a hierarchy or scale. So, humility means acting without arrogance, and humiliation means to reduce someone to a lower position. Humility comes from within; humiliation is something done to someone else.

My favorite definition of humility is "Occupying the proper place in the world around me." Not greater than. Not less than. Just right where I need to be. And before we go any further, let's be clear: my "proper place in the world around me" cannot be defined by the satisfaction of my wants, needs or desires. That, in fact, is the opposite of humility: seeing the world (and its people) as instruments whose job is to make me feel good by giving me what I want. No, that place I'm supposed to occupy is defined by the things I can do to be of service to others. In other words (to paraphrase John F. Kennedy), my job is not to ask what the world can do for me, rather it is to ask what I can do for the world.

Please don't mistake humility in this context for weakness. Because practicing humility takes a very strong person indeed. Think about it: the only reason I need to demand satisfaction from the world around me is that I need that satisfaction in order to feel OK about me. I am giving that job to the people and things close to me, because I cannot do that job for myself. Since that's a pretty bitter pill to swallow, it's usually easier to rationalize things into something that sounds like hey, I've got it coming. As a guy born with only one hand and one foot, I had that particular thought process down pat. And it almost killed me.

The result of this thinking is almost always disappointment: those people and things do not live up to your expectations. The problem, you reason, is that you are simply not exercising enough control over them. They do not understand the "right" way to act. Additional pressure is needed. The cycle repeats and repeats until you are in a state of perpetual conflict - and probably a state of perpetual loneliness.

So the external support structure doesn't work. What you need is an internal support structure: an unshakable confidence that, regardless of the actions and events that happen every day, you are OK. That internal support structure doesn't come from your resumé, your bank book or your address. It comes from a deep knowledge of who you are and how you think. Without this knowledge, you have no context for your actions - something happens, and you just do the first thing you can think of. Acquiring this knowledge takes time and effort; but it is readily available if you're willing to look - and keep looking, because it's really a journey that takes a lifetime. There is always more we can know about ourselves, and I can say from personal experience that the deeper you go, the more rewarding the results.

Make no mistake: confronting your inner demons (which have made themselves pretty comfortable all these years) is no picnic. Expect a lot of resistance, and above all don't try to do it alone.

Back to humility. If my goal is to develop and maintain this internal support structure, and my focus is to be of maximum service to those around me, then I have begun to acquire the humility I need to move forward with my life. Stripped of their responsibility of making me feel OK about me, I have much less need to control the people and things in my life. I don't have to be in conflict with them anymore. Instead of trying to drive situations in the direction most pleasing to me, I can let things happen in their own time, and I can be more accepting of outcomes that don't match up with my expectations. And I can be at one with the world, instead of apart from it.

In short, I am occupying my proper spot. I am better equipped to deal with the everyday ups and downs of my life. And I am much better equipped to handle the daily challenges of my recovery - both staying sober and maintaining my status as an ex-cripple (see my book, Nub: Story of an Ex-Cripple).

So humility is not a dirty word. It is something to be strived for, to be valued, to be formed into a foundation for life. When used in this way, humility brings into my life another word: serenity, which I like to define as "the ability to mind my own damn business."
About the Author
Emile Barrios has more than 30 years of writing experience in television news, advertising, public relations, and technical/scholarly publications. Following the completion of Nub: Story of an Ex-Cripple, Emile began a second career as a fiction writer and is now at work on a novel about Avoyelles Parish, a region in central Louisiana. Visit Emile Barrios.
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