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Personality: The gift of humility

November 09, 2012

You must have, no doubt, heard of many wondrous talents, so-called ‘gifts’ that help people perform feats of mind-blowing proportions for the possessors of average human capacities.

You’ll have met artists who can sketch you a picture as true and magnificent as anything under the sun, you’ll have read stories that make you laugh or cry or reach for the dictionary. You’ll hear stupendous music, and have a hard time believing people actually write that stuff. If you’re not an artist or a painter or a writer, these talents will no doubt seem ‘out of your reach’. This leads many people to believe that talents are innate, and that one has to be born with them.

This notion of ‘pre-packaged genius’ is oftentimes erroneous. Given the proper dedication to a subject from a very young age, a person can be trained to excel in almost anything. This is not only true for physical and mental prowess, but also for character traits and personal skills like anger management, charitableness and confidence.

The transformation is not necessarily an easy one, and certainly not accomplished overnight. However, the very truth of its possibility can open our eyes to many new exciting opportunities for personal development.

One such trait that I would, for the beauty of its sheer existence, the difficulty of mastering it and the benefits that it entails, call a gift, is that of humility, best defined by William Temple as ‘the freedom from thinking about oneself at all’.

In this day and age, humility is entirely overlooked as a virtue and is, instead, often frowned upon as a weakness. Children are taught to be confident and proud of their heritage. They are taught to brandish a can-do attitude and a positivity about their own abilities that is so sought-after in colleges and workplaces, until they are overflowing with the certainty of their own convictions. And during all this, a simple gesture of humility can be misconstrued as indecision, fear, guilt and some people might even go so far as to call it a case of inferiority complex.

How can a simple and noble trait, so valued in past ages and possessed by great, wise and pious men, be thus discarded in our present era? Is it truly a weakness to admit your own mistakes, to learn from others and respect them for who they are, to be modest and unassuming and always willing to help others? I consider it one of the most desirable qualities for a human being to possess, because it not only elevates one so much higher above the teeming mass of self-centred egoists, but also helps one earn the love and respect of others.

It is unquestionably true that when served with injustice, you must stand up and defend your rights. If somebody bullies you at school, you can rest assured that you have the right to not be bothered by this person, and from there onward, you may take action to assert that right. You may go about it the mature way, by talking to that person and explaining to them why it is to their advantage to behave themselves. Or you may take that person to task more forcefully, even go to some higher authority for assistance. In any case, you can hardly expect to be blamed for somebody else’s tendencies to beat you up and steal your lunch.

However, situations in life are not always as simple as the average playground bully. You might get into a riff with your best buddy or your sibling. It’s much easier to assert your rights over people you’re close to, but it’s not a very thoughtful thing to do. How often we fight with our dear ones because we want to impress upon them that we are in the right. But when the fighting is done, and we are all cooling off in our own little spaces, we do face that one moment of regret where, if we could take back everything we said, we would. Wouldn’t it be so much better to think before we insult and get insulted? To wonder if we too could be mistaken? Or if we aren’t, to gently dismiss the mistakes of others?

Yes, it is. You must discover this for yourself and then marvel in the beautiful simplicity of the whole matter! Look at the argument from a different perspective, and it will suddenly make sense to control your anger and avoid those angry words that you later regret. Being humble can do more than save your friendship, it can help you learn from people around you.

To be humble about your capabilities is to not feel the need to compare them to those of other people. While there is no harm in setting goals and standards for your success, it will only help you keep focused on these goals if you do not consider how much better you are at something compared to those around you. Otherwise, a minor advantage in some skill may give you a false sense of superiority regarding your own accomplishments and deter you from achieving your true potential.

Humility will bring you many opportunities to learn from those around you. You should abandon your qualms about asking others for help, and not feel ashamed for not knowing something somebody else may know. Students often face the dilemma where, due to either lack of concentration or some other mishap, they fall behind lectures and have difficulty grasping concepts that the class is already familiar with. In these cases, you may be tempted to turn toward rote-learning and get the exam over with.

But rote-learning will only get you beyond one exam, what if you have to use that concept again and again till you graduate (it is quite likely if you pursue that field of learning)?

It could mean bad grades and failed quizzes somewhere in the future. As an alternative, you may try to tutor yourself from the course book, which is fine, but time-consuming. It never hurts to sit down with your friend, or even a classmate who knows what he/she’s doing, and ask them to dispel your confusion! Same goes for asking your teachers, siblings and parents for help when you need it, and quite naturally, if you are ever approached by a similar student-in-distress, you should never turn them down.

These are just a few examples how humility can turn your life around and help you succeed. But practising them without embracing humility is meaningless; it is a selfish act from which you can gain emotional or materialistic means, but not spiritual uplifting. By embracing humility you will not merely make a point to show your acknowledgement of others’ existences (that would be just condescending!) but believe in their worth as much as your own.

Humility goes best with great achievers and humanitarians, because displaying the true capacity of your brain or your heart through actions rather than words gives some meaning to being humble, as opposed to being humble about a genuinely humble record, which should be expected, for the sake of plain honesty!

So why do I call humility a gift? Nobody’s born with humility — a baby in its gilded crib bawling for food, love and attention does not bespeak humility, even though the urgency to attend to its existence is not to be denied.

It is true that great men throughout history who have practised humility, faced many trials and hardships that helped them define the essence and nature of their beliefs and practices. But while you can learn from others that it is noble and good of you to be humble, and even strive to act humble, you cannot start on the path to true humility until you find yourself empowered with the belief in the knowledge of the value of life. Paradoxically, this is the way you can implant some meaning in your life, and become a ‘bigger’ person for everybody else.