In an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, renowned psychiatrist Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov cautioned that, in training, as we physicians replace ignorance with knowledge and confidence, we often relinquish humility. I confess that the swap occurred for me, and I believe that most people who accumulate skills and expertise, regardless of their profession, are hard-pressed to remain humble.
But what is humility? Can it be harbored only by people whose dispositions fall somewhere between Oz’s Cowardly Lion and the Berenstain Bear father? In an era where the pursuit of self-esteem is the mother's milk of our children, it is hard to make the case for humility. On a societal and cultural level, we appear to have re-defined humility as wimpiness. That wasn’t humility’s meaning in previous generations.
In the Bible (Book of Numbers, Chapter XII, Verse 23) we read, "Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on earth." That characterization sheds light, I think, on the nature of humility. Stereotyping says that humble individuals fear asserting themselves. Yet Moses did not back down when confronting Pharaoh. On the contrary, Moses emerged as one of the strongest leaders in ancient civilization. Humility, then, appears to be a variant of modesty that is not driven by the spirit of submission.
Multiple readers of this blog have been writing to me about the self-awareness that has been steadily increasing within them throughout the year. Several have been getting in touch with inner strengths and are now somewhat fearful that their egos will inflate and that they will become less sensitive to the needs of others. Humility can serve as a potent antidote to such anxiety.
Irish novelist C.S. Lewis wrote that "life is a matter of undulation." I love those words. I envision that undulation as a sine wave, with regular ups and downs. The author seems to view that sinusoidal function as a basic pattern of life. I’m certain he’s right.
That is to say that everyone has lows, but that, fortunately the repeating pattern ensures us of being lifted out of our valleys. And even more relevant to our topic today, when we surf the crest of a wave, we mustn’t assume that we’ll stay at the top forever. If Lewis’s pattern holds true, we won't. That’s a humbling notion but not without constructive value in its suggestion that we can prepare ourselves for the coming descent.
Sometimes, unexpectedly, we come upon a humbling experience. A few years ago, our family took a day trip to an amusement park. Some, endowed with honed vestibular systems, sought out the stomach-toppling rides. The rest of us meandered over to the carnival and arcade. I gravitated to the basketball booth. My newly-minted son-in-law joined me. We paid our money and quickly entered a shooting tournament. Gripping the ball, I had to make a decision about whether to compete with my son-in-law to win. I was sure that I could. Quickly, I decided that the right thing to do was to give it my best. I did, and I won handily. Yesterday, I proudly told the story to a colleague. My buddy smiled and asked, "Could it be that your son-in-law let you win?" Considerable time had passed, yet my ego had never entertained that scenario. How humbling.
I believe that we'd also do well to actively seek out humbling experiences. In my case, an example of this is the pursuit of challenge. One of the reasons I like challenges is because they offer the potential for the proverbial win-win situation. If I succeed in my challenge then I can record an accomplishment. That's, of course, an obvious win. But if I don't prevail, I can still grow and become more humble as a result of the failure. And that too should be entered in the "W column."
Humility can teach in subtle and enduring ways. In high school, having performed well as a freshman, I earned promotion to the sophomore "honors program.” Entering the more academically intense track, I discovered that I was no longer consistently at the top of my class. To watch others surpass me brought dismay but the experience has had lasting value in my life.
Toward the end of his essay, Chochinov makes two suggestions. First, that the most humbling of all is the acceptance of the reality that anyone can make a mistake. Second, that physicians would certainly receive a dose of humility by accepting the fact that very little protects us from sickness and death.
But even if you're not a physician, you've probably seen the pernicious effect of illness and other hardships. Nobody seeks hardship or ordeal but when tough times present themselves, we might be able to see the opportunity for growth as we make room for humility. Whenever I have done this, I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that there is no need to surrender self-esteem. In fact, the more deeply I understand myself, the more primed I am to be humble. Chochinov wisely warns that co-existence between our sense of assurance and humility is not a foregone conclusion. Fortunately, humility knows how to live quite well, in tandem, with the other components of our personality.
Until next Monday, Shalom.
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