People talk about the psychological importance of humility. For example, reformed alcoholics or drug addicts will say, “Until I learned humility, I could not become sober.”
They’re certainly on to something profound and important here. But is it really humility that saved them? And this applies to anyone who reforms his character or improves his psychological health in some way.
A website focused on addiction and recovery defines humility this way:
“Humility can mean different things to different people, but in basic terms it refers to modesty and respectfulness. It is the opposite of arrogance, a personality trait that brings people into conflict with others. Being humble means that an individual is able to accept [his or her] own limitations and weaknesses. It also means [having] a realistic understanding of [one’s] own strengths.”
Modesty and respect towards whom? And why? Should we show the same respect towards everyone? Or should we show respect to ourselves, first and foremost, and to those who have earned our respect, love and trust?
The essence of self-esteem is self-respect. Ask any recovering addict. Regardless of what he says about modesty, he will tell you that stopping substance abuse goes hand in hand with greater self-respect. Without self-respect and self-esteem, nothing else works. You hear about the corrosion of values and consideration in people who abuse drugs. They lie, steal and even kill for the sake of their addiction. Do such behaviors come from a sense of too much self-interest or too much self-respect? Or too little? Too much love of life and self, or not enough? Ask a former addict.
“Being humble means that an individual is able to accept [his or her] own limitations and weaknesses.” To me, this does not sound like modesty. It sounds like an acceptance of reality. But be careful here. Your limitations and weaknesses refer to facts you cannot change, i.e., you can’t read people’s minds; you can’t foretell the future; you can’t flap your arms and fly to the moon; you cannot control or change other people. It’s not humility, but simply realistic to accept these hard facts. They’re not really flaws or limitations; they’re just facts; metaphysically given truths nobody can change. In fact, it’s difficulties with reality itself that leads so many to substance abuse in the first place.
A lot of reformed addicts, especially those who participate in Twelve Steps programs, talk about humility in the face of God. “God” is a totally faith-driven concept. In actual practice, since God can only speak through designated emissaries or anointed documents (priests, rabbis, mullahs, Bible, Koran) here on earth, we’re actually talking about faith in certain people or their ideas.
But authentic self-esteem, while often influenced by significant others, is rooted in confidence in one’s own mind – not just the mind’s capacity to feel, but to rationally and objectively think and know. Again, ask any reformed addict, and she will likely tell you that she’s much more confident in her own reasoning abilities now than when she was stoned, high or drunk every day.
Arrogance is the opposite of humility, many say. But what is arrogance? It’s certainly arrogant, but also naïve and foolish, to think more of yourself than you really are. It’s arrogant to think you can change the oil in your car if you don’t even know how to open the hood. It’s arrogant and stupid to lie to yourself; to declare war on facts or reality. But the risk of arrogance does not rule out the possibility of confidence.
We all should be confident in our capacity to think and reason. Thought and reason do not guarantee success. But they offer the always present possibility that we can figure something out. If we can’t figure it out, we can find intelligent people to ask, while using our own brains to critically evaluate their answers.
We’re all in the driver’s seat of our own lives and our own minds. Nobody can do our thinking for us. That doesn’t mean we have to pretend we know everything. But we’re capable of thinking, concluding and judging, and don’t have to let anyone else do these things for us. Even when we delegate tasks to specialized people – car mechanics, tax accountants and the like – we still exercise judgment about what to ask, and whom to trust.
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