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Does Humility Still Exist in a World Focused on Social and Self Promotion?

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

Review of Radical Humility

Solitary man, head bowed, by bicycle in dusk

Photo by Sina Sadeqi on Unsplash

How often do you think about humility?

Be forewarned. I rarely read books of essays or short collections, usually preferring longer novels or works of nonfiction. When I was asked to read Radical Humility: Essays on Ordinary Acts, something wild and strange got ahold of me and I said “yes.”

My response to the publicist was,

“This is a book out of my norm, but I adore a well-written essay; I dislike arrogance; I believe in the power of “ordinary” people to change the world through small acts of kindness….and maybe humility. (Truthfully, I was also enticed by the artwork and graphics on the link to the book.)”

Click here to see the graphics that enticed me.

After the offer to read and review Radical Humility: Essays on Ordinary Acts, I started thinking about the issue of humility in a modern world. Do I know anyone who I would consider to be a truly humble person? Is humility a respected trait today? Does being humble help you succeed?

Okay. Humility is a rather deep, philosophical issue, definitely not a light-hearted read. Nonetheless, I sat on a beach reading this book, engrossed in a concept that I hadn't given much thought to before, feeling humbled by my small and insignificant presence in the vast scheme of ocean and sun and sky that surrounded me.

What is humility, really?

The book Radical Humility consists of twenty essays, each grappling with the concept of humility from a different perspective.

Several of the essays deal with the definition of humility, often referring to Socrates and the fact that he argued that he wasn't wise at all. Socrates, according to an essay by Agnes Callard,

"...sought to map the terrain of his ignorance, to plot its mountains and its rivers, to learn to navigate it,"

pointing out that humility requires the acknowledgment that each of us knows very little in the expanse of a vast universe. The only way to know more is to talk to others and acquire what they know.

To learn from others, we have to LISTEN to them and respect their opinions, even if their opinions are vastly different from our own. Multiple essays discuss how hard listening to others has become in recent years because of the focus on self-worth and social promotion.

How the concept of humility has changed in recent years

Interestingly, Sarah Buss, wrote in her introduction to Radical Humility that the emphasis we put into teaching kids self-esteem in the last two decades has had a detrimental effect:

"The increase in self-esteem has corresponded to a decrease in humility...The greater tendency to think well of oneself has corresponded to the tendency to think more of - and about - oneself than one thinks of - and about - anyone else."

The idea that our education system went overboard in teaching self-esteem is echoed by Troy Jollimore, a philosophy professor. Jollimore notes that most people believe unbridled self-esteem is a positive thing. But year after year, he observes his students and reports,

"People have a hard time listening to each other. They find it hard to treat people with whom they disagree with respect, or to take diverging views seriously. They have so much self-confidence in their own opinions that they are unable to be self-critical, and the existence of people who hold different opinions strikes them as disturbing, as a kind of affront."

Apparently, in our modern world, it's hard to be humble.

Humility is a rare state of being these days.

Recurring ideas flow through the twenty different essays

Twenty different essays from across the spectrum of society appear in Radical Humility. Authors offer insights on humility from the fields of education, music, medicine, journalism, and politics.

Regardless of the perspective, several themes flow throughout the collection of essays:

  • Humility does not require calling attention to oneself, publicizing your position or title and/or using your authority to get things done. Visibility is not a component of being humble.

  • The most humble people recognize that they don't know everything or understand everything.They see that their opinions are not the "right" ones or the only way to believe.

  • The more you know about the world, the more you see how little you actually know.

  • Seeing the world as a vast, complex, and wondrous place perpetuates humility. (Versus seeing the world as simple and easily understood which propagates the attitude that we CAN understand everything.)

  • Listening to others and respecting their ideas is a component of true humility.

  • Humility is often "cultivated through experiences of awe and gratitude."

  • An inherent connection exists between humility and pride.

Thought-Provoking Ideas About Humility

Reading empowers us. It teaches us. It makes us think about topics we haven't thought about before.

Reading about humility, I was entranced by several interesting ideas:

First, everyone has the "gravitational pull of self," but only the humble recognize that others areas important and valued as they are.

Secondly, the greatest leaders are often the most humble ones. Charles Blow's essay titled "Trump, Arrogance, and American Democracy" points out that Abraham Lincoln was humble enough to respect his opponents.

When the great orator, abolitionist, and former slave Frederick Douglass viciously criticized President Lincoln for his willingness to return escaped slaves to their owners, Lincoln invited Douglass to the White House for a chat.

By listening to each other, acknowledging other perspectives, and respecting each other's beliefs, the two men became close friends. Frederick Douglass' presence in Lincoln's life helped shaped the ideas of Emancipation that Lincoln might not have held had he not been humble enough to listen to - and respect - his harshest critic.

Thirdly, even institutions can be humble. (Believe me when I say that I had never even thought about the humility level of institutions until now, but Jamie Vander Broek's essay, "A Library Is For You" changed all that.) Libraries are humble institutions because they serve the customer. Their goal is to help the public find the resources they need by sharing what they have. Compare this to museums who promote their exclusive collections and their status, not allowing you to touch or get too close.

Libraries are humble. As Vander Broek suggests,

"Institutional humility has allowed people to make libraries exactly what they need them to be. Their power, which can never be matched by organizations more focused on status and self-promotion, is in their authentic connection to individuals, in service to the journey in their minds."

My Favorites

Three essays resonated strongly with me. One stunned me. One stimulated me. One soothed me.

"The Soul of Medicine" by Richard C. Boothman Stunned Me

I was stunned by the cold-hearted approach of some hospitals to the patients who are accidentally harmed while under its care. Boothman talks about his decision to guide the University of Michigan Health System away from the standard "deny and defend" legal stance of hospitals to an acknowledge-apologize-adjust practice when errors have occurred.

Instead of disavowing any errors and isolating the injured party, The University of Michigan has normalized the ideas of acknowledging mistakes, apologizing to the patients and their families, and then adjusting the policies or practices that caused the error to occur. Instead of deny and defend, it's about honesty and transparency.

It's an approach that has resulted in both patients and caregivers being "unguardedly empathetic" with each other and enabling them to find the "common humanity" between them.

A hospital with the courage to face its mistakes is a humble hospital.

"In-Between Spaces" by Ami Walsh Stimulated Me

I am a writer. Writers are storytellers, so I was stimulated by the idea of collecting the stories of hospitalized patients, many of them terminally ill. Some of them lonely, in need of an audience. Ami Walsh writes about collecting these stories and how humbling and intimate the experience was.

One patient made an autobiographical recording that was almost an hour long. She touched her fingers to her head and said,

"These thoughts have been swirling around for so long in here."

Then she touched her heart and said,

"And here...I feel a sense of relief having gotten my story out to someone other than someone in my family -- having gotten it out, period."

The writer in me understands that hearing and telling the stories of others engenders humility. Not only is listening important to hearing their stories, but so is the idea that you have not suffered what other people have. You have not had the same experiences. You have not had the same triumphs or struggles.

In essence, hearing other people's stories makes you humble because you become less self-centered and more attuned to the lives of others.

One medical student emphasized that hearing the stories of classmates and patients was emotionally satisfying:

"Hearing the other students' stories and the stories you have recorded in the hospital leaves me fulfilled in a way that I haven't felt since starting medical school."

Epic Failures in 3D Printing by Nadia Danienta and Aric Rindfleisch Soothed Me

How in the world can the topic of failure be soothing to me?

When failure is normalized as part of the any process...

When there's no stigma attached to failure...

When people applaud each other's failures because they contributed to learning and progress...

THEN the idea of failure is soul-soothing, indeed.

3D printing is a relatively new creative process. The cost of 3D printers has now come down enough that hobbyists and "makers" of all kinds are using them. But the learning curve means that "things go delightfully askew." (One of my new favorite phrases.) The authors note,

"Intrepid individuals who want to try their hand at 3D printing are nearly certain to experience a considerable amount of failure and are likely to be duly humbled as a result. We term this experience, 'making failure,' and propose that, in addition to being humbling, this experience may also paradoxically lead to a sense of pride.

You can be humbled, but still be proud of having tried. When others are also experiencing failures, the process becomes normalized and accepted. The essay points out that failure is not a bad thing.

"The importance of embracing failure is increasingly being recognized across a broad swath of domains including education, psychology, and business...Although failure humbles us, it may also create a sense of appreciation for the making process, which can also make us proud."

Writers understand that even if a manuscript is rejected, there is pride in the completing it and having the guts to send it in. The same is true for painting, inventing a new tool, attempting a new hobby, or formulating a new algorithm. Failure is part of the process, but there is pride in attempting it at all.

Radical Humility: Essays on Ordinary Acts

Is this an easy read?

No way.

Is this a valuable read?


Why? Because

"We desperately need a reconstructed and reinvigorated notion of humility today."

Man and dog alone under a starlit sky

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