Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Valuing Humility

Religion & Society

This was originally posted on September 8, 2010. I am republishing it here as a reminder to us all, no matter one's religious observance or practices, of the universal virtues of humility. It's an appropriate time of thinking about such things, and to say "sorry" to anyone that we've wronged or hurt. Today at sundown marks the beginning of the period, in the Jewish calendar, of Yamim Noraim (Hebrew: ימים נוראים‎), or the "Days of Awe."

It is traditionally called the High Holidays or High Holy Days, a ten-day period of introspection, self-examination, and repentance. The period starts with Rosh Hashanah (today), the Jewish New Year, and culminates with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
To those observing the holiday, my wish is for a healthy, happy and sweet year.  Or the traditional greeting, Shana Tova Umetukah, which in Hebrew, שנה טובה ומתוקה, means "A Good and Sweet Year.

"[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);
© 2005 Charles Dickens Museum
Source: Wikipedia

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. Here is a brief passage: 
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, says: "Humility—true humility—is one "one of the most expansive and life-enhancing of all virtues."
Photo Credit: Cooperniall, December 6, 2006.
There is also a video, from Rabbi Sacks on the importance of saying "sorry." It's worth your time to view it.


  1. I have recently found that in spite of the Law of Jante which pervades the cultural mores in Norway, in fact the word "humility" itself seems not to be as valued as I thought it would be, which made me wonder a bit about the possible lack of local cultural understanding between the real difference which does truly exist between humility and false humility, also between modesty and false modesty...both humility and modesty being seen as somewhat bunched together and devalued as somewhat false, or maybe mere undesirable exaggerations, even by some local learned people which IMHO should know better. You cannot imagine how different from the rest of the Judeo-Christian world is the cultural world of truly feels sometimes as on a different planet here, or in a time warp of some sorts, both back in the American '70's, but also in some form of Orwellian SF of a potential future. (I am exaggerating a bit here, but I am telling you that this past year I think I have been experiencing the cultural shock of my life, for which no amount of reading or prior travel experience or even cautionary tales from my Norwegian language teachers could have ever prepared me !)

    Now actually reading Jante's Law a bit more closely from the inside, it actually seems to me being more representative for false humility & modesty than for authentic ones...I tend to think that it may come from some form of earlier traumatic narcissistic injury of some is true that Norwegians have suffered in the more distant past due to chronic hunger and the Big Black Plague epidemic which has, at that time, literally decimated 1/2 of the local population, then came the years of being considered somewhat second class citizens of the former powerful Kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden...I still have yet much to learn about these things...

  2. Rudolph:

    Thanks for your lengthy comment. I can't comment on Norway, since your knowledge of that particular nation is greater than mine, as your comment shows. I looked up the Law of Jante, and it seems a particular set of mores common to the region of Scandinavia. But then again, all regions have certain customs and traditions, some good for human relations, other less so. True humility is an action that is hard to arrive at, making it rare among humans, because it says that you ought to value others, or at least find value in their humanity. It's not impossible, though. It takes, for example, listening and caring. It just takes work, self-awareness and recognition that true value or self-worth is not the same thing as self-promotion. A person with humility is not weak. Quite the contrary.


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