Pillars of Joy: Day 2 (Humility)

“Arrogance is the confusion between our temporary roles and our fundamental identity.”

This is the second of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Throughout the book, the Dalai Lama repeats a certain concept over and over again: he is just one of 7 billion people on this planet. He is just like the rest of us. According to him, recognizing that you are the same as everyone else is a fundamental element of being joyful. One significant cause of suffering is when the belief that we are somehow better than others or special is pulled out from under us and we are made to look ridiculous.

I hate to sound ironic, but I’m pretty good at being humble. What I mean is, I find it really comforting to know that I’m not that special, that I’m just one of all these billions of people struggling to live a life of purpose and happiness. It’s not hard at all to accept that I have weakness and problems just like literally everyone else. That’s the beauty of perspective: you can see yourself in others just by watching how they struggle.

The Archbishop put it this way: “Our vulnerabilities, our frailties, and our limitations are a reminder that we need one another: We are not created for independence or self-sufficiency, but for interdependence and mutual support.” Humility isn’t just about debasing yourself; it’s about recognizing that we need each other to survive. No one is able to do it alone, and that’s what connects us.

Douglas Abrams explains that humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means earth or soil. Humility is being able to recognize where you come from, that you exist from a common source with everyone else. In a very literal way, humble people can be described as down to earth. It’s important to recognize also that the ground is as low as you can go in this metaphor. When all people are brought to this level, they are quite equal; you don’t have to dig a hole to achieve more humility than others. We are all the same, not better or worse, by our very nature.

I think it’s worth pointing out that there are ways in which we can measure ourselves against each other. I doubt it would surprise anyone to learn that Michael Jordan is a much better basketball player than I am or that Yo-Yo Ma is a superior cellist. So what do we do with such obvious disparities in talent or ability or other gifts? Well, we acknowledge them. There is no harm in taking pride in our accomplishments because what we are able to accomplish is not contingent on our nature. In other words, Michael Jordan and Yo-Yo Ma are valuable because they exist, not because they have extraordinary talent. I am valuable because I exist, not because I’ve done anything to “earn” it.

It seems to run both ways: we are capable of doing great things, but we will never be capable of doing everything alone. Whether we like it or not, we need each other to survive and flourish. This is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned in the last year or so: it can be very humbling to ask for help, but it doesn’t have to be humiliating.


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