Throughout my growing years, I was taught at home and at school that one should be humble and practice humility; that one should be kind and respect others; that one should not praise oneself but let others praise us for our work. In other words, one should shun pride and be humble. Like most, I too had by-hearted the instructions and it was all clear to me. Yes, it was all clear to me. I greeted people with a smile, said thank yous and sorries very generously; believed to be open to other people’s views and feedback and thought I was kind and modest. In other words, I had no doubt I was humble. Trust me, ignorance can be bliss. You start believing in your own thoughts and beliefs without stopping once to analyze how close they were to reality. And that’s what happened with me.
“By admitting they are not perfect, people speak of humility. By not admitting a shortcoming, they are unable to display humility” – Jeroninio Almeida
Some years back, I faced a situation where I was asked to rate myself on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being perfect). A very common question, asked on many occasions these days as part of interviews and learning and development programs, but a question that in a way ended my bliss. How do I rate myself? Well, it was not the question itself that was confusing but also the associated conclusions. What could be the conclusions drawn from the answers given?
If someone rates oneself as 10, is he being over confident or is he being proud? In other words, is he not humble? Or is he just far away from reality? Again, if one rates oneself lower, is he a less confident person, unsure about himself or is he just modest? Or is he just unaware of his potential?
I have heard many people say, especially on corporate interview panels, that they look for a candidate who can say they are a perfect 10. It shows their confidence. But my confusion was can anybody be a perfect 10? Are we perfect? Being perfect leaves no room for improvement, because you cannot improve ‘perfection’, but can we claim that we need no improvement? And if we were perfect, then why is the world, we live in, imperfect? Is it because I am perfect but others are not? So how many I’s do we have in the world who are perfect? I was confused. But the more I thought about the rating, the more I found evidences of my imperfection which convinced me that I definitely was not a 10. But what about others? Can somebody else be a perfect 10? Well, with all due respect to human potential, I am still more inclined to saying that nobody can be perfect. I personally believe nobody can be perfect. Again that’s just my views and many may argue citing examples of people who have achieved that feat, for example, Nadia Comăneci, the Romanian gymnast, who scored a perfect 10 at the 1976 Olympic Games at Montreal. Yes, that’s hard data. She stunned the world with her perfection. And I agree. Although many like Mary Lou Retton (American) and Daniela Silivas (Romanian) have achieved the same later, the perfect score was thought to be unattainable at her time. So much so, that the scoreboard was not equipped to show a perfect 10 and therefore it displayed 1.00. I agree, she scored a perfect 10 for the activity at the time. But, is it not true that to set a new world record, an old one needs to be broken? And does that not mean, that what we thought of as perfect, at that time, now seem less than perfect? With all our collective experiences and knowledge as life on earth, are we not striving to imperfect what we previously thought to be perfect? Is that not what we call, improvement? Is perfection then not like infinity ,which can be sought but not attained? In a way, is it not true, that our infinite potential, will always make us imperfect? Is it not true that we are still trying to understand infinity?
Nadia Comăneci, poses beside the scoreboard that recorded a perfect 10 as 1.00. With no Olympic precedence, the hardware was not capable of displaying a perfect 10
To me a perfect score is like the horizon, the closer we move toward it, we realize there is still more to go. As we improve, the bar for our potential, just gets pushed a little higher. Therefore, I believe more in the aspiration to be a 10 rather than claim to be a 10. I find the former more realistic.
To be honest, I like imperfection. It helps us strive for improvement, helping us learn and stay modest. It helps us believe that we can achieve more and that brings hope and instills aspiration. In a way, I think it also makes life interesting. It surprises us and helps us discover our own potential and I am not ready to believe that we have reached our limits in life. If we have, then there would not be much to look forward to in life. Will there be? “The day you are perfect is the day you are in the box”, writes Jeroninio Almeida (author of bestseller Karma Kurry, for the mind, body, heart and soul), in one of his articles, titled India needs Humane leaders in All Sectors in Business World magazine, describing perfection to be a myth and continuous improvement, a reality.
Our infinite potential makes us imperfect
But my confusion did not end here. My thoughts were entangled between perfection, humility and confidence. Are they mutually exclusive? Is vulnerability associated with humility? Is perfection and confidence inversely proportional to humility? And most importantly, what is humility?
Sometime in the recent past, while reading Karma Kurry, for the Mind, Body, Heart & Soul, I came across the author, Jeroninio Almeida’s, explanation of humility. “Real Humility is when I can treat a minister, a prince, a priest, a teacher, a waiter and a janitor with the same and equal respect”, he wrote. Very articulate and beautifully put for many like us who are still seeking to understand the basic principles of life. Yet, to be very honest, I was confused. What did it mean to treat everyone with the same and equal respect? And moreover, how was it related to humility? Does thanking a liftman when he opens the elevator door or a waiter when serves food or touching the feet of your elders or thanking a colleague, mean being humble and showing respect? My mind was once again entangled between humility and courtesies and cultural etiquettes. How do I become humble? How do I practice humility? Were greetings and gestures really humility, or were they exemplifications of humility? In fact, was respect also a by-product of humility?
Humility- as I seek it
Half my life, I was so convinced that I understood humility and was a humble person, that I never even questioned myself, till a few years back, when a sudden feeling and realization completely threw me off gear. I was overwhelmed but thankful. All these years when I was far away from the truth I was very articulate about humility but that day, I became speechless. I still do not have words to describe it. I was visiting the Grand Canyons in the state of Arizona in the US and while looking at the vastness and beauty of the canyons created by nature on a spatial and temporal canvas, I could not help but be overwhelmed by its magnanimity and power. I felt miniscule in the grand scheme of time and space. I felt miniscule experiencing that there was so much beyond me and my purview. Yet the feeling was not entirely daunting, it was soothing too. Daunting, because I realized that nothing was in my control and soothing, because I felt part of something big, really big, something that was bigger than everything I knew or could perceive. I just felt thankful; thankful that I had been given the opportunity to be part of something so big.
That day, standing at a view point, looking down at the steep canyons carved by the Colorado river, it was a sense of security and helplessness at the same time. Slightly philosophical, slightly spiritual and mostly still confused, I tried in vain to describe the moment even to myself. But one thing that came out of the experience was from that day onwards, I have not been able to claim that I was a humble person nor have I been able to claim that I understood humility.
Grand canyons: A humble creation of Nature
Ever since, I have had that feeling come back to me many more times; everytime I heard about earthquakes or tsunamis; everytime I saw someone cross the limits of our medical science and await death; everytime I attempted to visualize our solar system, leave alone the universe; everytime I tried to understand origin of the universe and life on earth; everytime I wondered at the microcosm of our very own human bodies, controlled by our own brains, yet so unknown. My list goes on and everytime I think about them, I experience that same overwhelming feeling.
I remember a particular dialogue from the Aamir Khan starrer, PK, that quite resonates with some of my thoughts – tum ek chota sa gola ki choti se sheher ke chote se gali mein baith ke bolta hai ki bhagwan ki raksha karega, jo poora antriksh banya hai…….usko tumhare raksha ki kono jaroorat nahi…..wo apni raksha khud hi kar sakta hai (residing in a narrow lane of a small town of a small planet in the universe, you are claiming that you need to save God…God who is the creator of the Universe….He does not need your protection….he can protect Himself). The dialogue feels like a wake up call, compelling me to come back to reality. Buddy, you are too small and insignificant!
I thought I knew I was dispensible, but now the realization had hit me harder. May be for the first time, it was sinking into my system. But surprisingly, the feeling didn’t bring insecurity. It was actually liberating and exhilarating. I felt grounded but worthy. I felt vulnerable but free. The feelings instilled courage and confidence. The feeling also instilled acceptance and peace. And now, when I read Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s description of humility as a “non-judgemental state of mind” or Jeroninio Almeaida’s explanation of humility bringing in equality, I feel the depth of their words and realize that it’s a long way to go before I realize true humility.
Humbleness- Seeker or Achiever?
Humility is not to be confused with gestures, courtesies and etiquettes, rather it may possibly be a state of mind. May be it cannot be taught; may be it is upto each one of us to realize it, to feel it. It is the cause that helps us be non-judgemental, keep an open mind, treat everyone equally with respect and remain a learner throughout life. It does not mean lack of enthusiasm or courage or confidence, infact, it is a path of courage, knowledge and respect. And as C.S. Lewis, the British novelist and poet puts it, humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.
I am not sure if I can achieve humility but it sure is worth seeking the path. May be humility can only be achieved while seeking it and not attaining it. May be following the path is the goal, because the moment we think we have achieved it, we lose it.
Image credit – University of California, Berkeley, Wikipedia, Burningheartprayers, Numbersleuth