This question came to mind recently as I had listened to the last few chapters of Catcher in the Rye on audiobook, just before facilitating the local NVC support/practice group. J.D. Salinger included at a key point in his novel, a rather profound quote about humility. The beloved English teacher of the protagonist was deeply concerned about the boy, sharing that he feared he was headed for a great fall and wanting to support him in waking up before he went over the waterfall, so to speak. Holden Caulfield was so lost and miserable because he was filled with judgments about nearly everything and everyone, including judgments about himself. There was a light sprinkling of things he liked or even loved, but they were far outweighed by harsh evaluations and painful judgments.
I don’t see humility as a feeling or even as a universal human need. It is, ideally, a shared reality, to me, that resides deep in every human heart, perhaps even in every heart of every species. I say ideally, because evidently it is not a widely shared reality in this Western culture we grew up in and currently live in. Humility is often grossly misunderstood.
I might try to explain it like this: When all judgment, blame and evaulation has been let go, when the mind is focused fearlessly in the now moment and the heart is willingly wide open … then compassion and natural wisdom and humility simply exist and are evident and accessible. For me it is another word for the place in the heart from which gentle, loving kindness and compassion can be offered to self and others, and the place in the mind where objective observation can occur even while one may be in great pain from unmet needs.
To me, humility is the key not only to accessing empathy for others, but also the key to emergency self-empathy. When I am in that state of humility consciousness, I can instantly go to that place deep inside myself where I transcend some of my universal human needs. As we know, not all of our needs are met all the time, and it is painful to have unmet needs. When I am in humility consciousness, even if I can stay there only for a few minutes, then for those minutes, I am spared the pain of unmet needs, and can see the bigger picture easily and clearly. Most of all, for me personally, humility is the consciousness which empowers me to take things as not personal or hurtful, even if they are intended as such.
It is only with humility that I personally can see others’ needs as equally important to my own. When I drift away from or forget that humility consciousness, then my needs seem to be more important, or in extreme absence of humility, all important, to the exclusion of anyone else’s needs.
To give an extreme example, Hitler may have seen his ideas and needs as all important, and was willing to force his views and strategies upon others worldwide. He chose violence, torture and death as a means to an end, to cut out the cancer and fix humanity. He’s a shining example of absence of humility consciousness, even though deep inside of him, I believe, resided a base of humility (which was more visible in his childhood and early years). Later in his life, it had been covered over so heavily with judgments, fears and strategies, that one would imagine he had no humility in his heart. But I believe he did, he’d just forgotten it almost completely. He was so wedded to his strategies to “fix” the world and cure it of the bad genes of the Jews, gypsies, gays, non-Aryans, etc.
Because the word, humility, has its origins in strict, harshly judgmental religious philosophy, it carries a chilly Old Testament kind of connotation to it. I wonder if it is hard for some to see it in its own light, quite apart from the harsh judgmental biblical language and tone that it seems to have been born out of. It seems it is still sometimes associated with that chilly tone to this day despite how far we have evolved from Old Testament times.
We live in a culture which emphasizes individual achievement, power, skill and influence constantly. While there is nothing wrong with that, it simply has not been balanced with natural humility consciousness…which is like the baby that gets thrown out with the bath water of personal “greatness.” Ideally, I’d like to develop my skills, talent and power to the max while always maintaining a balance of those with my natural sense of humility. Then I’d have the best of both worlds.
We tend to think that humble people are usually very poor, have few if any advanced skills or literacy, live in rural areas or in ghettos, and are very simple folks. That is the stereotype, to be sure, but I question whether it is accurate. Some of the most highly talented, gifted or skilled people in the world who’ve risen to the top…still maintain a profound sense of personal humility.
If I developed my singing talent and skills to a level where I was confident in them, and let’s say I sang a song at a big club and I was satisfied with how I sang. Then later on I overhear someone insulting my singing, saying that I sounded like a frog in pain (and others laugh at the remark). If I am aware of or can access my humility/wisdom consciousness at that moment, I might be slightly amused by the comment. Or it could be like water off a duck’s back. If I forget my humility consciousness, I would demand that everyone like and appreciate the beauty in my voice and all the work I’d put into rehearsal, etc, and I’d feel hurt by the frog comment. I’d need respect, consideration, kindness, support, appreciation, etc. I might even approach the person who said I sounded like a frog in pain with or without NVC skills… And even if I said something in perfect NVC form and intent, it could trigger a festival of pain, embarrassment, hurt, etc.
But with humility consciousness, I am spared all of that because I simply don’t take it personally, I don’t hear it that way.
I had tried to explain the nonjudgmental way that I see humility some weeks ago when I wrote this as well:
<< As for humility, I agree with you, it is not a need, and I doubt it ever will be listed on any of the NVC universal needs lists. The need it helps me to meet is akin to the emotional liberation Marshall speaks of. But I'd take that to a different level, and say my need is for relief from all my human needs, just temporarily. If I can access the natural, deep humility in my heart and soul, I can take even the angriest, most intentionally hurtful words and deeds of others in a way that is not personal or hurtful,. Thus I can more easily give empathy to my "attacker." Humility also is a sort of strategy, you might say, for meeting needs for absolute emotional safety, peace and harmony. I have not seen Marshall or any prominent NVC folks talk much about this, but I suspect humility is a key to my giraffe consciousness, and that it resides in the deepest recesses of our human hearts. Cultivating it also helps me to meet needs for deeper self-knowing on the soul level, knowing my true spiritual essence and bliss beyond all my universal human needs. The list of human needs is quite a chore to look after, and with humility, I meet my need occasionally for soul/spirit liberation from all of them, even if just for a few moments. That way I can expand my view beyond my own limited personal perspective which usually limits me to just my needs, and get the information that comes from pure, objective observation of everyone's needs, especially those of the "other" or "others." For me, the ultimate level of humility allows me to see all as one, so there is no "other" and no separate "me" or self. This brings about a sense of autonomy that is transcendental and ineffable. I can understand easily why Marshall and many other NVC people don't even want to broach this or other words/topics from Eastern mysticism or religious traditions. These paths lead to a consciousness which empowers one to transcend everything for a time. Some get so caught up in the perpetual pursuit of those blissful transcendental states of consciousness (which to me are just an extreme of giraffe consciousness), that they would abandon their NVC work and practices. Perhaps even denounce them as binding us to our egoic minds and emotions. Of course I believe there is room for both, and that neither has to cancel out the value of the other. Also, everyone struggles with feelings and needs, while very few ever experience transformative transcendental states. >>