Sunday 15 December 2019

Humble pie: Humility is the ultimate virtue

Mother Teresa. Phot: AP
Mother Teresa. Phot: AP
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I'd never heard of Nah, a multidisciplinary artist and punk drummer from Philadelphia, until I chanced upon his performance at Body & Soul festival.

Actually, performance is an understatement. Raw, insistent and utterly intoxicating, this was artistry at its best.

"Who is this guy?" asked my friend as the man on stage delivered an incendiary drum solo. I was already weaving my way to the top of the tent to find out…

When his set concluded, I was one of the dozens of people to commend him on his performance. The rest of the tent had been rendered speechless.

It was interesting to see this level of praise levelled at an artist. It was even more interesting to see the grace with which he accepted it.

He was engaging, courteous and grateful. And yet, at the same time, he was entirely unfazed by the effusive praise. True artistry is a rare thing to behold. Sincere humility is even rarer.

Mother Teresa said "humility is the mother of all virtues". It's also the most uncommon.

The trouble with humility is we don't know what it looks like until we see it standing right in front of us. Sometimes we equate it with low self-esteem, submissiveness and powerlessness. Sometimes we think of it as a byword for humiliation, just as we confuse it with false modesty.

The truth is that humility is a strength, not a weakness. Or as CS Lewis wrote: "Humility isn't thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less".

More to the point, it's a virtue that never looks at itself in the mirror. "True humility does not know that it is humble," wrote Martin Luther. "If it did, it would be proud from the contemplation of so fine a virtue".

We could all do with a healthy dose of humility. It's the antidote to the status-conscious world of selfies and social media, just as it's the only way to overcome the persistent need to achieve for achievement's sake.

Even those who insist that they are #grateful and #blessed could do with a lesson in humility, or at least a caution about false pride.

Writing on self-conceit, CS Lewis said: "There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves.

"There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular," he continues, "and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves".

His words are worth considering the next time you're tempted to brag or name-drop...

Humble people don't rely on praise or buckle under criticism - largely because they realise that a pat on the back is only six inches away from a kick up the arse.

Likewise, they don't define themselves by their job or their home or their partner, or feel the need to dominate conversations and intellectually showboat.

As for the game of one-upmanship - they don't even know the rules.

If you really want to endear yourself to people, learn to listen more than you talk. Better still, develop the ability to say "I was wrong" and "I don't know" without blushing or stuttering.

These are the hallmarks of humility and they will impress people far more than your house in France or your Mercedes-Benz.

Also, try not to fall into the comparison trap. Truly humble people don't think of themselves as better or worse than anyone else - save for their former self.

This is mainly because they are always learning. A humble person is careful to listen to everyone's contribution, even if they are the expert in their field and even if they have a degree in the subject.

In many ways, humble people get over themselves by losing themselves, whether in service to others or in pursuit of their passion.

We hear a lot about surrender these days. Humility is the ultimate act of surrender. It's about abandoning the need to identify with your strengths and weaknesses and doing what you do for the sheer love for it.

Like any spiritual process, it's about dismantling the ego and aligning with the spirit. Andrew Murray, who literally wrote the book on humility, put it best when he said: "Humility is nothing but the disappearance of self in the vision that God is all".

When we adapt to this way of thinking, we begin to consider our gifts and talents as nothing more than an expression of spirit itself.

As John Rushkin wrote: "Really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them. And they see something divine in every other man and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful".

It was this very quote that came to mind while I watched Nah's performance. The music he was making wasn't coming from him, it was coming through him. It was as though he was being driven by some unknowable force or channelling the muse herself.

Anyone who has ever encountered a true artist invariably talks about how disarmingly humble they are. But maybe it shouldn't come as such a surprise.

Instead of thinking that the world's most prolific artists are humble in spite of their talent, perhaps we should come to terms with the idea that they are talented because they are humble.

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