Humility is sometimes scorned, regarded as a weakness. The writer Ayn Rand proclaims, “Discard the protective rags of that vice which you called a virtue: humility.”* Pride, however, the narcissistic exaggeration of the self, closes the door to all personal progress, since in order to learn, you must first think that you don’t know. Humility is a forgotten quality of the contemporary world, the theater of seeming. Magazines are constantly giving advice about how to “affirm” yourself, “make an impression,” “be beautiful” — to seem instead of be. This obsession with the favorable image one wants to present is such that we no longer even ask ourselves anymore the question of the groundlessness of seeming, but only how we can appear most positively. However, as La Rochefoucauld wrote, “We should gain more by letting the world see what we are than by trying to seem what we are not.”
Most people associate humility with a lack of self-esteem and a lack of confidence in one’s own abilities, when they don’t associate it with an inferiority complex. They don’t recognize the benefits of humility, since if “self-importance is the privilege of the fool,” humility is the virtue of one who has taken the measure of all that’s left for him to learn and the path he still has to travel. Humble people are not beautiful, intelligent people who take pride in convincing themselves they’re ugly and stupid; they are people who don’t make much of their ego. Not thinking of themselves as the center of the universe, they open up more easily to others and are especially aware of the interconnection between all beings.
* Rand, A. (1992). Atlas Shrugged. Penguin, p. 970.
A humble person has nothing to lose or to gain. If he is praised, he thinks it’s for what he has been able to accomplish, not for himself as an individual. If he is criticized, he thinks that bringing his faults out into the open is the best service anyone could do him. “Few are sufficiently wise to prefer censure, which is useful, to praise, which is treacherous,” wrote La Rochefoucauld, as if echoing Tibetan sages who remind us that “the best teaching is one that reveals our hidden faults.” Free from hope and fear, the humble person remains carefree and without affectation. Paradoxically, humility also favors strength of character: the humble person makes decisions according to what he thinks is fair and holds to them, without worrying either about his image or about what people will say about him.
Humility is a quality that is invariably found in the wise person who has acquired many qualities, for, they say, it’s when the tree is loaded with fruit that the branches bend to the ground, whereas the proud person is like the tree whose bare branches point up to the sky. While traveling with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I often noted the great humility laden with kindness of such a venerable man. He is always attentive to people of modest means and never poses as an important person. One day, after greeting François Mitterand, who had just accompanied him to the front steps of the Élysée palace, the Dalai Lama, before getting into his car, went over to shake the hand of one of the guards standing at the side, beneath the stunned gaze of the President of the Republic.
Humility is a component of altruism, since the humble person is naturally concerned about others and attentive to their well-being. Social psychology studies, on the other hand, have shown that those who overestimate themselves show a tendency to aggression that is greater than average.* A link has also been highlighted between humility and the ability to forgive, whereas people who think they’re superior judge the faults of others more harshly and regard them as less forgivable.**
* Bushman, B. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Threatened egotism, narcissism, self-esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: Does self-love or self-hate lead to violence?? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 219–229.
** Exline J. J. & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Case Western Reserve University. Unpublished data cited by J. P. Tangney, Humility, in Handbook of Positive Psychology (2002).