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How do we appreciate our uniqueness along with knowing that we are not more unique or more special than anyone else? 


Let’s talk about humility…

What is humility?  Humility has been described as the solid foundation of all virtues.  Hmmm, so if we get humility right the rest will flow? 

The poet T.S. Eliot said that the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility. Humility is about knowing that one is no more special or important than anyone else. That seems to be a fundamental truth, right?  In one way being humble is being wise, it is being realistic.  It is seeing the big picture rather than being lost in self-referential experiences.  Writer and theologian C.S. Lewis said: ‘Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.’ (Incidentally, the self-referential tendency is reduced with mindfulness practice)

The biggest irony is that the more we seek to feel special or more important than others, the more unhappy we become.  We may get the dopamine and serotonin squirts that come with the experience of success but they metabolise quickly and we then find ourselves seeking the next kick. We become impatient as we think it is all about ‘moi’.  We get bored when we are not achieving, in effect when we are not strengthening the ego.  And we find little contentment or joy in the simple things.  We operate in the ‘acquiring’ mode rather than the ‘appreciation’ mode.  

The point is that humility is great for our mental health.  Part of understanding this is to consider the role that gratitude plays in humility. Being humble means that we have internalised gratitude. I know that I was promised nothing, that I am lucky due to my parents, due to the place I was born, to the time I was born and to having certain attributes that give me the lifestyle and the opportunities that I have.  I know my success is less personal than it is circumstantial.  It is simply a blessing.  Many people work hard all their lives and only just survive or perhaps not even that.  We also tend to focus on what we have and experience, rather than what we don’t have and what we miss out on. 

We could possibly extend the idea of humility further to understanding that the human race is no more important than other life on this planet, and that we are interdependent with all other living things.  Culturally we place ourselves, the human race, as the most important species on the planet and look where that has taken us! There is even a word for it….. ‘Anthropocene’.

We don’t tend to celebrate humility much in the West.  We are less about the human qualities of someone and more about their achievements.  Think about the people we revere…

Just this week I met up with someone who meets many of the known Buddhist teachers. He had been quite shocked and saddened by most of them actually, including their behaviour behind closed doors which ranged from entitled, to grumpy to simply rude.  There is a saying by Goethe: ‘You can judge the character of a person by how they treat someone who can do nothing for them.’   I have just observed two groups of Buddhist monks going through the priority gate at the airport, and I wonder if it is good for them, is it in fact good for any of us to have privilege above others?  What do you think?

This leads to the research that we discuss in Mindful Leadership training about how when we feel ‘power’ or high status, then we feel more than.  In other words, empathy goes.  Empathy and a sense of ‘more important than’ cannot co-exist.  And the higher the social status that we see ourselves as having, the more we simply do not see those of the ‘lower’ classes.  Yet we know that happiness and life quality derives from our feeling of connection with others.

That learning from neuroscience presents a fundamental challenge to organisations, especially the more hierarchical ones, because what we feel connected to, we protect, while we can easily abuse that or those from whom we feel disconnected.  Perhaps this also explains many of our broader world challenges?

So how do we remind ourselves that we are all born with one little life, and all yearn for basically the same things, and that we all do better when we are seen and appreciated? 

How do we appreciate our uniqueness along with knowing that we are not more unique or more special than anyone else?  That irrespective of our talents we are all subject to the same rules of life?  We are born and we will die;, we have strengths and we have weaknesses.  We have challenges, sorrows and delights.

While working here in Singapore these questions of power, empathy and humility have been on my radar.  I am staying at a nice hotel that would not function if it were not for all the people who clean, cook, and serve.  I have been acutely aware of ensuring that I see and greet the cleaners both at the University Campus and at the hotel and also those serving me in shops.  This is not because I am anything special but because it is the human thing to do, to acknowledge each other.

I recently stayed at a very expensive resort as part of a job.  I observed feeling bad, a form of guilt, and was wondering why.  Why could I not just enjoy it?  Was it my Protestant work ethic?   I think it was knowing how very few people can ever afford that kind of luxury and that is not fair.  And by the way, this kind of privilege certainly does not go to the most deserving!  I think that when we feel bad about inequality, we can see it as a sign that this is fundamentally wrong.  And if we can’t feel it, we might be curious about how we justify our privilege. After all, humility is good for us, and the world.

Let’s finish off with Jess Jackson’s advice: ‘Never look down at anyone unless you are helping them up.’

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