I once asked a very wise woman I know how to talk about humility without sounding grandiose. She said “why do you want to talk about humility?” and I found myself in the catch 22 that, to me, is the very essence of humility.
I cannot say to you, “I am humble” and it be true, by virtue of the fact that I have claimed it for myself. Someone else can say it about me, but the minute I assert that I am humble, I am automatically not.
I strive for humility, personally. I occasionally hit it between periods spent lurching from supreme arrogance to crippling low self esteem, sometimes several times a day. It is a largely elusive characteristic, but it is one that sits at the heart of what I hold dear. It is integral to authenticity, to self awareness, to generosity and, most importantly, to not behaving like an ass.
Humility is poorly understood. Society as a whole would rather self deprecate, lest we be prideful, put ourselves down lest we be accused of arrogance, and we judge harshly those who are able to see themselves as they truly are. I think that that is what humility is. The ability to see oneself as we truly are, flaws and all…but, vitally, also seeing and valuing our assets.
Humility is learnt in the times during which we are not humble. Just as things seem to be going really well for me I generally “suffer” a setback. These are lessons in humility, that keep me grounded, allow me to gain perspective, to grow, and to become more authentically me. But, lessons in humility do not have to be humiliating…they sometimes come in different guises. For example, I have recently been working as an agency nurse in a geographical area mostly unknown to me. Having only been Head of Nursing at an acute trust in London fairly recently, it was quite a shock to be treated by my colleagues as a lower class member of the team. Now, there was no need to tell them the depths of my experience, there was nothing to be gained by behaving like an ass (see above) I just got on with my job. It was nice for them that I was so competent (although I found it harder than it was when I was 25) and I got more work. Everybody was happy. I behaved well, but I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that in my head there were times that I wanted to shout “do you know who I am?” or some such. But I didn’t. And that, my friends, is growth.