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  • Dr. Shelly Harrell

Weekend Wisdom: Reflecting on Humility

You don't want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. -Maya Angelou

What is the energy of humility really about? Sometimes modesty and humility are treated synonymously, but this weekend's wisdom quote has prompted me to think more deeply about it. Modesty suggests being unassuming, limiting the estimation of one's abilities, or avoiding impropriety. It seems that an element of modesty is that is has an external orientation that is concerned with how one behaves or appears in public, how one is perceived by others, and a regulation of self-expression. There's an energy of pulling back, shrinking, reducing intensity, or becoming smaller. And we know Dr. Angelou was not at all about playing small! While certainly there is an inner experience or preference, modesty seems more about moderating how one shows up in the world. I'm thinking that valuing modesty is related to culture and personality, while humility seems more spiritually connected.

In distinguishing modesty and humility, Dr. Angelou shares her wisdom that humility's origin is within us. As I have been meditating and contemplating humility, it seems to emerge (in part) from an authentic inner experience of reverence and profound gratitude for life. Humility is related to a deep understanding that one is part of phenomena and processes much bigger than our individual existence. When we have humility, there is a deep and sincere appreciation for what we don't know and what we can't control. With humility comes an openness to learning and growth that invites feedback and discovery, recognizing that everyone and everything can be your teacher. To see through the eyes of humility is to be in awe of the universe, in awe of the miracles of life and mysteries of existence. To have humility is to respect the human journey with all of its inevitable struggles and challenges of uncertainty, impermanence, unpredictability, and pain that none of us escape. Humility means knowing that we are in an ongoing and dynamic process of evolving and unfolding; it is knowing that we can always improve ourselves. Our optimal development, personally and collectively, depends on a deep, inner humility that makes space for unknowing and knowing, unlearning and learning, deconstruction and reconstruction, apology and redemption. When we live with humility, there is an energy of positive surrender.

However, humility is not powerlessness. I used the term "empowered humility" in a paper I co-authored many years ago about diversity. An empowered humility is active, it is fuel for engaging one's life with courage, the willingness to see our failures and the ways we may have hurt or harmed others, to be called out, to be accountable to our highest intentions, and course correct when indicated. Humility is freedom from arrogance and excessive pride. It is a recognition of our vulnerability, imperfections, and missteps. Humility is a commitment to self-awareness, to looking in the mirror, to seeing and telling ourselves the truth about ourselves. We can have awareness of our strengths and gifts, while simultaneously remaining humble in how we use them and that they exist for a purpose larger than our individual ego. With empowered humility, we know our specialness, but also deeply know that our specialness is not better or superior or more valuable than others. Humility involves a deep respect for the dignity and value of other persons. Humility calls us into empathy, perspective-taking and deep listening; to recognize that our view and our way is not the only view or only way.

I didn't realize I had this much to say about humility! And it is continuing to call me into further contemplation. I need to take a breath.

What does humility mean to you?

With Peace, Love, and Soulfulness,

Dr. Shelly Harrell


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