Humility: A Quiet Key to Collaboration and Our Collective Health
When I was asked to speak at a University of Michigan symposium on the subject of humility I honestly knew little or nothing about it. Beyond a general understanding of what the word meant, and that it was probably a good thing to have, I wouldn’t have had much to say about why it would matter. In the intervening months of inquiry, I’ve learned a lot. I can see now, very clearly, how humility can help us in so many ways—at work, in society, at home—to make our lives more rewarding and our work more effective. I realize, too, how a lack of humility is behind so many of the problems with which we struggle.
Humility, I’ve learned, works quietly. But please, don’t confuse humility’s calm discretion with passive ineffectiveness. Humility, I now strongly believe, has power; the power to heal, the power to help. The power to restore health. While the news seems to get louder and ever more frenetic, humility is waiting for us to let it contribute to the conversation. If humility was a guest professor, the assignment it might give us would be to turn off the news, take a couple of deep breaths, cock our ears, look inward, and pay close attention to what comes up in the quiet. What at first, to the casual observer, could sound like nothing at all, just might turn out to be a wonderful whispering source of strength and wisdom. In the inflammatory state of current national discourse, humility is a soft but still effective voice leading us away from ego, and in the direction of much needed doses of dignity, compassion, kindness, inclusion, reflection, and respect. (To paraphrase folk singer and spoken word performer, Utah Phillips, we might want to consider adding “rant control” to our list of programs going forward.) As Wendell Berry writes: “It is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”
Does the subtle, gentle presence of humility have much value when the country is in crisis? On its own, we know, humility won’t cure Coronavirus. But having learned what I’ve learned over the last few years, I’ll answer with an adamant yes. Why? Because rather than shutting out what others (with whom we may not agree) have to say, humility leads us to be more open to the input and help of those who know more than we do. It makes it easier to meaningfully say, “I don’t know.” It increases the likelihood that we will own our responsibility for our errors. It improves the odds we will take the advice of experts seriously, even while still making our own decisions. Humility makes it more difficult to be curt and dismissive. More difficult to be curtly dismissed. And harder to say, “I don’t care.”
Will humility have an impact on our other recovery? The rebuilding of social trust and mutual respect? I will answer, adamantly, in the affirmative. Humility, I believe, is incompatible with racism, hierarchy, and hatred. Twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “To the end of history, social orders will probably destroy themselves in an effort to prove they are indestructible.” Humility, by definition, could help us steer clear of that tragic fate. If we have humility we accept that we are all imperfect, all fallible, all interdependent. This past spring, I began to think of 2020 as a “marathon through a minefield.” Humility, I’ve come to realize, is one of the keys to successfully getting through. When you don’t need to be “the best,” “the biggest,” or “first to the finish line,” the odds of successfully getting to the other side of the minefield—without losing our minds, our lives, or our livelihoods—increase significantly.
I would suggest that when we approach the world from a place of humility, it makes it much more likely that we will:
- own our own part in creating the problem with which we’re confronted
- acknowledge our shortfalls and ask for help
- understand that none of us have all the answers
- treat everyone with whom we interact with dignity
- be much more open to outside perspectives and creative insights
What became clear to me as I pursued my studies on the subject, is that to stay meaningfully humble is a multi-layered, complex piece of work that continues on for our whole life. As we do that work, we all impact, and are impacted by, each other. None of us can do it alone. Maybe we could consider authoring a Declaration of Interdependence that references Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Humbleness? We are all, whether we like it or not, ultimately in this together.
Adapted from the newly-released pamphlet, “Humility; A Humble, Anarchistic Inquiry.” Published with permission; Zingerman’s Press, 2020.
This essay was featured in the October 11, 2020 edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper publishes News and Views that Rise Above the Noise and Inspires Hearts and Minds. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.