What is Humility ?
Lately, I’ve been musing on the meaning of humility, after seeing a variety of posts legitimately highlighting its importance…
Originally published on LinkedIn by the author.
Humility can have three distinct meanings, from distinct contexts.
And context is king.
The first meaning is the one which I think most of the posts I see alludes to. A willingness for those who enjoy comfort and success, and who have the means to wield power over others, to consider what their reality would be if all that were stripped away, and act accordingly. To serve. To understand that their context should create a duty of honesty, understanding, sympathy, care and compassion. To come down from the perch they’ve been able to build and see life at ground level.
Basically, to follow the Golden Rule; to do unto others as you would have done unto you.
But ‘humility’ is also a word that can be wielded like a cudgel. For those who don’t have a perch, who don’t enjoy comfort, who haven’t had the chance for success, it can mean something very different. It can mean an expectation of self-abasement, when used by the powerful. When the powerful expects the powerless to get lower, that doesn’t mean standing together at ground level; it means bowing and scraping, begging for scraps, feeding the hubris of one with much to feed the belly of one with little. It means humiliation. This needn’t be a deliberate abuse, but abuse it is. The two contexts contrast too starkly.
And, in the Kingdom of Ends, whatever one’s intent might be, means and consequences do matter.
But, between equals, it can mean mutual respect and solidarity. A willingness to be a fellow-traveller, to share the burden, to join what power one has with that of another, to make something greater, better, more powerful.
To serve what is right for each-other, and so for society, together. Grounded in a common understanding that we are all flawed, all fallible, and all worthy of an equal role in our shared civilisation, no matter what fate has seen fit to grant us.
Each of us will see something different, from our own context, in this one word. And power and influence matters, as does authenticity. Humility must never be just a PR exercise, a means to self-aggrandisement, leverage.
Humility is a way of thinking about and valuing the world, and we all need to understand why and how context matters when we use this word, and others in the same genus of ostensibly positive values.
So, humility for the powerful sometimes needs to mean a change in context. The act of stepping back from privilege, and ensuring that you’re creating a new context of where there’s mutual respect, real equality, the foundation on which it’s possible to build a shared society where power doesn’t need to matter.
And that always starts with a recognition that we come from different contexts, and that context grounds the realm of possible.
One well-placed word can tell a thousand stories, depending on how it’s located. Consider which one you’re telling, and the context it’s helping to shape.