The paradox of humility

Photo by Katherine copyright

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There are exceptions, of course. For the rare public figure or celebrity whose cultivated arrogance and lofty untouchability intersect in just the right ways, it’s still possible to be merely “honored” and “surprised,” in old-school acknowledgment of deserved recognition. (Think of Bob Dylan, who was unable to travel to Stockholm to pick up his Nobel Prize in person because of undisclosed pre-existing commitments.) But it’s tricky. We live in a rabidly anti-elitist society that is also in slack-jawed, slavish thrall to elites, and it’s no joke to try to maintain homeostasis between “Look at me!” and “Who, me?”

For most of us, the choice is simple: We can either let our triumphs and random strokes of luck go unremarked upon, or we can bow our heads and declare ourselves humbled by our great fortune.

It seems worth pointing out, though, that none of this is what “humbled” actually means. To be humbled is to be brought low or somehow diminished in standing or stature. Sometimes we’re humbled by humiliation or failure or some other calamity. And sometimes we’re humbled by encountering something so grand, meaningful or sublime that our own small selves are thrown into stark contrast — things like history, or the cosmos, or the divine.

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