"The point of man is not to be humble, it is to be humbled."
I'm certain I read this in an email from the founder of the GoRuck Challenge, Jason McCarthy, but I've never been able to find a trace of the words either in my email archives or on line. But they are words that have stuck with me ever since I read them.
It's funny how the addition of one little letter can change the meaning of a phrase so completely.
To be humble: one of the cardinal virtues ingrained in our society. Be grateful. Don't brag. Know your limits and your place in the world. Certainly, these are well intentioned rules of thumb for living one's life.
But I'm certain that the concept of humility, while perhaps good at heart, is so thoroughly misunderstood and misused as to become useless at best and self-defeating at worst.
Humility is passive, and encourages passivity in us. Too scared or weak to take action towards your goals and do what needs to be done? That's fine, hide it under draperies of humility.
Humility is the perfect excuse to not only not talk about yourself and your actions. It is the perfect excuse to never take action in the first place. Indeed, there is no call to action at all, and as a result no hard-won insights about oneself.
Or as the Art of Manliness put it: "The cloak of virtue hangs very awkwardly on a man without fire and fight; it droops and sags when draped across a structure that lacks strength and firmness."
In particular, humility needs the strength of other virtues to stand straight and mean anything. Humility has to be paired with courage and initiative and a sense of risk and the possibility of failure before it takes on an attractive form.
Add one letter to that same phrase, and see how the meaning changes. To be humbled. And what an empowering difference!
To be humbled. It's active, not passive. We had to do something to be humbled. We're putting ourselves in situations beyond us. Beyond our comfort zone. Where we might fail. But if we're reaching for something meaningful to us, then it's certainly worth the possibility of failure, the chance of being humbled, of losing. The struggle in and of itself is worthwhile. Perhaps it is making us into the person who can achieve that goal, and success is just around the corner. Even if that's not the case, how can we ever truly know ourselves if not through our failures and hardships, the situations that thoroughly and completely "put us in our place"?
Only through hardship, through our humbling experiences, do we have the chance to develop the qualities we cherish the most, as I recently wrote in my essay on Terre des Hommes. Otherwise, what is man, but a soft sheep weakly bleating and waiting for the slaughter?
No one expounds this idea better than Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning:
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
Striving for a freely chosen task and taking real action is hard, and entails obstacles that test our nerve, resolve, and will. These hardships give us a chance to live up to our ideals about ourselves, whether that be of courage, compassion, camaraderie, leadership, or anything in between. And we become humbled in the process because only through our striving do we begin understanding and seeing our capacities and our limits. On the one hand, we probably discover that we're stronger than we thought. But not as strong as we'd like to be.
And with the hard-won insights born of action, we know we can push past these limits, but that doing so often requires immense effort, discipline, courage. Those who have gone before become pathfinders, lighting our way, worthy of respect for their trailblazing efforts. Those on the path with us become camarades, sharing the same hardships and obstacles, being humbled in similar ways. We become grateful, truly grateful, for these mentors and friends, and for that which we have been able to accomplish through our persistance and dedication.
Or, perhaps the hardship is thrust upon us, as it was on Frankl when he was sent to a Nazi concentration camp in WWII. Regardless, as Frankl wrote after his experience there,
The way in which a man accepts his fate, and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity- even under the most difficult circumstances- to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish.
Frankl isn't talking specifically about humility, but he doesn't have to. It is a natural consequence of attempting to remain strong and brave, in his case, before some of the most flagrant acts of cruelty in the cruel history of mankind. It is a humility born of experience, of seeing oneself tested over and over again. It is a noble humility that is too big for false modesty or meek acceptance.
James Stockdale explicitly stated what Frankl hinted at in the above. Writing this after spending nearly a decade in captivity in North Vietnam:
I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.
As with Frankl, one of the most difficult and humbling experiences a man can suffer becomes a quiet source of strength, a pillar of Stockenridge's identity. Again, if we don't expose ourselves to hardship and the process of humbling that it entails, we can never truly know ourselves, our capacities, and eventually grow to overcome our limits.
And as we saw with Saint Exupery, these most terrifying and humbling experiences often plant the seeds of our most lasting contributions to humanity. In Saint Exupery's case, he could not have written his beloved Little Prince without nearly dying of thirst when his plane crashed. Marooned in the desert, three days without water, and on the brink of death, he and his mechanic were rescued by a bedouin nomad. And yet out of that experience came one of the most famous and cherished books of all time, a book that has been printed 150 million times and translated into nearly every written language on earth.
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a wonderfully vibrant, almost violent poem called The Man Watching that expresses these sentiments much more forcefully and expressively than I ever could. Note that the bolded emphasis is mine.
I can see that the storms are coming
translation by Edward Snow
There is a call to adventure here, to set out to seek those great storms that can truly shape us and change us and make us great. To walk "erect and justified", humbled and not humble, to our next freely-chosen task and hardship, recognizing that this is the only way we can continue learning, growing, and striving for excellence and virtue.
As Viktor Frankl wrote, "Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is. In a word, each man is questioned by life..."
Are you sitting around, humble, waiting for the answers? Or are you wrestling with the answers, humbled, "deeply defeated by ever greater things"?
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much