Updated: Jun 3, 2020
I have come to think that wisdom manifests as realism, integrity, and maturity and that the characteristic we can develop to become wiser is humility, self-awareness, and staying in contact with our conscience. In this blog, I reflect specifically on humility.
Is humility important?
Self-importance is dangerous. We can hold strong views and opinions and express them confidently and then bathe in our elevated status. Other people may very well give us the stage and we may be seen by them to be knowledgeable and exalted. We may develop a confidently held set of views and opinions. We feel right. We feel self-important. But is this a route to wisdom? It is at least limiting, if not a downright hindrance. There is a danger that our strongly held views will give us the impression that we already know what we need to know, and so our ability to learn and change is hampered. In our self-importance, we become the centre of our world, instead of the witness of the lifeworld within and around us. When our world changes and we don’t, we’ll be dragged along with it.
To grow in wisdom, we must be able to develop new and adapted perceptions, ideas, and realisations. Wisdom is a quality of mind that allows for changes in perspective. It is facilitated by the space created by not knowing, uncertainty, ambivalence (being able to appreciate the argument for and against), inquiry, and open-mindedness. It takes a particular kind of confidence to not have a concrete set of personal views and opinions to draw from, persuade others about, or use to bolster our self-importance.
Confidence in humility grows with maturity, as we recognise the limitation of our personal significance and the relativity of our subjective interpretations. We recognise (wisely) that there is much in our experience that is not within the realm of our subjective thought, and so we realise that we can’t take credit for much of what we understanding, in any case. We aren’t individually clever in our wisdom, as much as we are wise in our lack of personal cleverness.
This new perspective requires us to be attentive to our directly felt experience in the present moment, with lessening self-importance and the temporary absence of concreate subjective interpretation. This type of open attention enables new spontaneous ideas and understanding to emerge that are not uncoupled from our direct felt experience.
Our reduced self-importance also allows us to rest in an awareness of the present moment, to wait, listen, feel, and facilitate the emergence of new understandings in ourselves and others.
In humility, we don’t need to control or dominate our own experience, nor that of others, but instead respond and engage sensitivity, kindly and reflectively.
If we need to gain the upper hand in our relationships, if we need to argue and persuade others that we are right and they are wrong, then we simply won’t learn from them and they won’t learn any wisdom or maturity from the example we set.
We are supported in our development of wise humility, when we receive someone else’s attention, with patience, support, empathy, and optimism (they are role-modeling the quality for us). We also develop ourselves, when we offer this quality of attention to someone else.
Humility is something we can struggle with because we can work on the assumption that it is better to be powerful (projecting any feeling of weakness into someone else). It’s true in a sense that when our own terrifying feelings of weakness are deeply buried, that we feel stronger. However, if we’re not scared of feeling weakness, failure, or insignificance, then we have the option of developing our confidence in humility and wisdom, rather than self-importance and personal views and opinions.
Humility also offers something self-importance can’t - the realisation it is pointless to try to meet the expectations we (and others) have set for ourselves, at least while these expectations do not align with reality. We understand that being valued by others for our success and associated importance is dangerous, fragile, and over-rated.
In humility, we realise that our tendency to polarise our own humanity, so we only feel strong, right, and self-important is problematic, and we realise it is a relief to be confident enough to grow out of the insecurities, upon which our self-importance is built.