On Humility

Some of those who know me well may see the irony in the fact that I am choosing to write a post on humility. Still, I think humility is a much underrated virtue, and one that seems largely to have been lost in the modern world, where it is misconstrued as weakness.

Because capitalist society frequently defines its members primarily as consumers, we who live in such societies begin to see ourselves as more important than we are. Happiness is concomitant with our own needs being fulfilled (and as conveniently and instantaneously as possible), and as long as it feels good, it is good. I become the centre of a social structure that pledges itself to making my life better.

To compound that, in a constitutional democracy underpinned by certain “inalienable” human rights, we have also begun to see the world only in so far as it affects ourselves and what we feel we are personally entitled to. We are often slow to accept the responsibilities that ought to accompany those rights, or to stand up to champion others when their rights are being infringed upon. Truly altruistic behaviour is rare. We are often charitable only when it is convenient and heroic as long as it can be accomplished comfortably.

I am – it pains me to confess – not much different. So when I claim that I am not humble, it is not a subtle psychological ploy to make you see me as humble. I am genuinely not. Humility serves beyond the self. I have not learnt that lesson yet.

History has many fine examples of humility in leadership. One of the iconic figures in my life is Nelson Mandela. He was wise, he was strong, he was principled – all qualities I admire. But what I revered most in him was his humility. And there are literally hundreds of stories about this characteristic of his. Take, for example, this account by Jessie Duarte, who was his personal assistant between 1990 and 1994:

“He always made his own bed, no matter where we traveled. I remember we were in Shanghai, in a very fancy hotel, and the Chinese hospitality requires that the person who cleans your room and provides you with your food, does exactly that. If you do it for yourself, it could even be regarded as an insult.

So in Shanghai I tried to say to him, ‘Please don’t make your own bed, because there’s this custom here.’ And he said, ‘Call them, bring them to me.’

So I did. I asked the hotel manager to bring the ladies who would be cleaning the room, so that he could explain why he himself has to make his own bed, and that they not feel insulted. He didn’t ever want to hurt people’s feelings. He never really cared about what great big people think of him, but he did care about what small people thought of him.”

Even in the famous words spoken at his trial, it is evident:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realized. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

I have my own story too. When I was a schoolboy, Mr Mandela addressed our school, shortly after his release from prison. I wish I could say that I was inspired by his oratory, that the man made a deep and lasting impression on me. And I am sure that if he had spoken to me personally, he would have. That day probably was one of the events that triggered my growing political awareness and sense of social responsibility, but the truth is that at the time I was completely unaware of the significance of the moment. I cannot remember a word of what he said. Only now, more than twenty years later, and in the light of the deep love I hold for the man, can I reflect on what a humble act it was for him to address a school like mine.

We were an all-boys school, and we had been typical of many of the Apartheid era educational institutions: we had learnt how to march and to shoot, we had “civic action” lessons timetabled, devoted to teaching us how to be responsible citizens. Many of my teachers were – to be fair – quite revolutionary in outlook, and my class had the distinction of counting among its numbers the first-ever black boy to be accepted into the school. But Mr Mandela could hardly have been expected to know that. So as “progressive” as we occasionally were, we represented an educational system deliberately designed to teach young men to be racist. I can appreciate the humility of the great man coming to address us.

I hold Mr Mandela as up for myself as an icon of humility. He was courageous enough to sacrifice his own comforts and even – had it been necessary – even his life for a cause that would ennoble people. He never saw himself as great, but was not self-deprecating either. He used the power he had to empower of others. The New York Times described him well:

“[H]e did not make the moment of South Africa’s transition about himself. It was not about his being in jail for 27 years. It was not about his need for retribution….Mandela did not make himself the hope…He saw his leadership challenge as inspiring hope in others, so they would do the hard work of reconciliation. It was in that sense that he accomplished big things by making himself smaller than the moment.”- Thomas L. Friedman, “Why Mandela Was Unique”, The New York Times, Dec. 10, 2013

Wouldn’t the world be better if we who are parents and teachers, could raise up a generation that could see past the lies of a culture that promises them that they are all that matters? Imagine a world where, despite whatever adversity life threw at them, young people could accept that they were powerful, and then had the courage to choose to use that power to achieve something more than personal gain? Should we not be dreaming of a society where leaders want to serve their people instead of themselves? What should we be doing to make that happen?

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