The etymology of the word humility goes back to the essential –earth. The word humility comes from the Latin humilis, from humus: what comes from nature but also enriches and fertilizes it, and makes it grow.
Humility is about freeing ourselves from the inessential to concentrate on the essential. It invites us to realise that our limitations are actually what make us human, and what allow us to become conscious of how much we still have to do and to grow. Because of this, a sincere expression of humility isn’t a sign of naivety or weakness: it’s precisely the opposite, a sign of awareness and inner strength.
Humility is not a sign of frailty but a sign of greatness in a person, precisely because it comes from the feeling of your own insufficiency:
There’s always something or someone to learn from; it’s always possible to do things better, you can always question how valuable what you’re doing personally and professionally is, and use that to confront new challenges, develop new skills, learn new lessons, or build new bridges. So humility goes hand in hand with awareness, and can be enormously revealing: infinite possibilities for thought and action can spring from it, out of common sense, reasonable doubt, and the simple admission that there is a lot of work to do, always, to provide quality in all its dimensions: in yourself, in your relationships with others, in our acts or in the things you create, in life.
Luckily, the wealth humility generates does not get hooked on success, such an addictive drug, a bottomless abyss. Success works like a carrot held just far enough in front of you to keep you going until you drop from the exhaustion of chasing after your chimera. Perhaps because of this, humility is closely related to the desire to fulfil rather than the need for success: fulfilling your tasks, what you have promised to do, what you have agreed to, with doing what you must, what it’s your turn to do, what is necessary, and doing it well. Humility does not boast or get wrapped up in what it achieves; it simply keeps on working and enjoying its work –and understanding that success is not an end in itself, but a symptom you shouldn’t pay too much attention to –not only does it throw you off track and distract you; it also leads to stupidity and self involvement as a consequence of mass worship.
And don’t confuse humility with false modesty, a hypocritical form of vanity. Because humility is exactly the opposite to vanity. Vanity blinds and distances you from reality, whereas humility reveals and puts you in touch with what is real, essential and genuine, inside and outside yourself.
It’s expressed in small things, in details, in uncomplicated, simple, basic codes of communication which are tremendously valuable for anyone on the receiving end. Humble details become the gifts we most truly value, for their genuineness. In time, these are the gifts we remember, with the perspective of life experience, as we know that they, and only they, are the gifts that remain, because they live in memory and not in matter, and nothing and nobody can take them away from us.
We forget the worth of the essential, which can’t be bought or sold, and is humble in essence but of ineffable, or sometimes even infinite, value. There are a wealth of examples…
- Knowing how to listen, to give the gift of our silent reception, keeping our own need to talk quiet, opening ourselves to others’ needs so that they’ll feel listened to, accompanied and respected. This is surely a gesture of humility which will fertilize relationships and enrich friendships.
- A simple, sincere smile can also spark mutual understanding, playfulness, and improve any encounter –or even open up a new direction in a heated conversation or bitter relationship.
- Gratitude is also a precious gift born of humility and acknowledgment of others. Both members in the gentle exchange grow. How little it costs to thank, and how thankful we all are for gratitude.
- And what about caresses and tenderness? They’re nothing but pure humility; they come from the skin, from our nakedness, and take us back to what’s essential. We reencounter each other in them and express things words cannot name.
- Knowing when to keep quiet and not to interrupt or disturb others is a valuable gift of humility. Leaving others alone when they want to be. Freeing them from unwanted advice, from help they haven’t asked for, or from company that might be annoying them is hard to understand sometimes, because it means applying the same principles to ourselves and obeying our own need for silence or solitude, feared states in today’s world. Respecting others’ need to be alone can sometimes be a great gift of humility at a time when silence and calm are among the scarcest of treasures.
The list of truly valuable “humble gifts” could go on and on. They’re everywhere, they cost little, and they fertilize any relationship; that is, they’re wealthy, because they nourish your essence, the being of the giver and of the receiver. Nothing material is exchanged in them and they depend solely on how we feel about others, or even about ourselves. So it’s worth putting them into practice, because they’re also tremendously healthy: they stimulate the imagination, trust, respect, commitment and joy, to name just a few “intangible assets”. Perhaps much of the quality of our lives and relationships is to be found in these gifts.
PS. A book which contains a lot of delectable thinking on the value of humility, as well as on friendship, love and other fundamental principles, is “Tuesdays with Morrie” -a moving, true-life story by Mitch Albom, who takes a deep, revealing look at essential matters in conversation with an old university professor of his.
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