Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Finding Humility

"[Humility] does not mean undervaluing yourself. It means valuing other people." 
—Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, On Humility

False Humility: Uriah Heep from Charles Dickens' David Copperfield.
Credit: Ink and wash drawing by Fred Barnard (1846-1896)

We have been witnessing an erosion of the virtue of humility in the last 50 years, the loss becoming more evident in the last few years in the Age of Celebrity. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth, has written  a wonderfully human essay on the value of humility, On Humility.

I cite a brief passage from his remarkable essay:
Humility is the orphaned virtue of our age. Charles Dickens dealt it a mortal blow in his portrayal of the unctuous Uriah Heep, the man who kept saying, "I am the 'umblest person going." Its demise, though, came a century later with the threatening anonymity of mass culture alongside the loss of neighbourhoods and congregations. A community is a place of friends. Urban society is a landscape of strangers.
Yet there is an irrepressible human urge for recognition. So a culture emerged out of the various ways of "making a statement" to people we do not know, but who, we hope, will somehow notice. Beliefs ceased to be things confessed in prayer and became slogans emblazoned on t-shirts. A comprehensive repertoire developed of signalling individuality, from personalized number-plates, to in-your-face dressing, to designer labels worn on the outside, not within.
You can trace an entire cultural transformation in the shift from renown to fame to celebrity to being famous for being famous. The creed of our age is, "If you've got it, flaunt it." Humility, being humble, did not stand a chance.
But it's making a comeback, notably among those who are not blind to its virtues. It might not appear beneficial to act with humility, seen as it is in this age of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion as foolish and unproductive. Yet, its benefits are universal and liberating. 
When you act with humility, and wear it as a well-worn suit, you will never be at a loss for true friends, something of great value in culture where fame is fleeting. It's a virtue worth cultivating, chiefly because doing so makes you a better person.
In defence for humility, I leave the final word to Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: "Virtues may be out of fashion, but they are never out of date. The things that call attention to themselves are never interesting for long, which is why our attention span grows shorter by the year. Humility—the polar opposite of  'advertisements for myself—never fails to leave its afterglow."

On Humility: Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK, at National Poverty Hearing 2006 at Westminster, London. "Humility—true humility—is one "one of the most expansive and life-enhancing of all virtues." Photo Credit: Cooperniall, 6 December 2006. (See

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