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  • Writer's pictureJacke Karashae

how modesty undermines humility

okay, kids, let’s talk about the idea of “being modest” about skills, accomplishments, etc.


being modest about what you’re good at is our cultural definition of humility.  ask someone what humble means, and they’ll probably describe someone who, when complimented or praised, smiles, gives that oh, you look, and says something to the extent of “you are too nice”, which then leads to an arms race of compliments and evasions.  this kind deflection is a virtue to us.


but as i’ve started thinking about humility in the frame of honesty and vulnerability, i’ve started to realize that modesty may just be one of the worst things we can model, and can, in fact, can blind us to our own ego by letting us claim “humility” without paying the cost.


my favorite definition of humility is “embracing the honest reality about yourself and others,” because it stands in contrast to a whole host of self-perception issues that can take us off center besides massive self-congratulation, which is usually the narrow bounds we put on “pride”.  but in the world of self-perception, thinking you are the greatest thing god ever gave your generation is far from the only way your self-perception can go sideways*. instead, the litany of self-perception issues (from my very non-professional observation, of course) includes, but is not limited to:

  • seeing all your friends with even mildly similar talents as a threat to your own worth (unless you can tell yourself that you are at the same spot or slightly ahead of them)

  • seeing your strengths as the way you have to “advertise yourself” to make friends

  • seeing your skills as the only thing anyone you are close to really cares about

  • seeing your weaknesses as the trapdoor that will make your friends vanish if they ever stumble over them

…and lots more, but those are just the ones have trouble with.


what’s in common with all of these things? they all encourage obsession over your strengths (or lack therof) as a way of understanding your reality.  they make you reduce yourself, and others, to marketability; and depending on how you feel about yourself on any given day, you’ll either feel great about yourself or terrible about yourself.


humility is supposed to be the thing that breaks us from this treadmill of self-obsession, fear, and guardedness.  humility should result in us being honest about both strengths and weaknesses so we can support each other in community and have better empathy/understanding of each other.  it should remind us that, no, friendship is not a skills exchange, no, we are not the sum of our marketabilities, and no, others seeing our weaknesses isn’t something to fear.  humility should enable us to let go of the ego-gratifying or self-debasing fixation we assign to our strengths and weaknesses so that we can stop looking in a mental mirror and constantly evaluating ourselves and actually do something with our lives that isn’t about attaining some exaggerated sugarpop-reality of ultimate self-image.


but modesty does none of that.  instead, modesty-brand humility tells us we should deny strengths whenever they’re brought up.  we do that either to keep everyone focused on talking about what level of awesome we’re on and never manage to get to the weaknesses, or to try to rush people along to the weaknesses so that we don’t have to think about what responsibilities we might have to others in our strengths.  we keep ourselves and everyone else locked in the self-evaluation phase–am i awesome yet or not–and never move on to the application phase, where we serve each other’s weaknesses with our own strengths.  and vice versa.

 


in short, the cost of humility is honesty.  and modesty is anything but honest.


 

one last thought, to finish it off.  think about one of your closest friends, and then think about the stories you tell when you want to express how much they mean to you.  what is the situation that comes to your mind?  if you’re anything like me, the stories that come to me first are those times that my friends met me in my weakness and served me with their strength.  they’re the times that i’m a wreck/i’m unprepared/i’m in desperate need and they come in and help me out, no questions asked, no “i-thought-you-were-better-than-this” rhetoric.


those are the moments that prove people.  and by fixing our concept of humility on simply being modest, we are cheating ourselves of all of them.

 


*going sideways is one of my current favorite phrases. expect to hear it a lot if i talk to you in-person about stuff.

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