Saturday, November 7, 2015

Humility: I do not think that word means what you think it means


I've a piece in today's Age and Sydney Morning Herald: 'And the award goes to...Hollywood's humblest'.

Mariah Carey and her celebrity peers speak about being 'humbled' by awards. Are they really? And if not, what do they mean? I discuss humility, pride and the notion of virtue. A sample:
If they're not feeling humble onstage, they probably were to get there. To achieve anything of note, we need some psychological pain: the uncomfortable "ugh" that comes with our own failings. The only way to develop any talent is to recognise deficiency. We are not perfect beings, worthy of worship. We are fallible, weak animals, prone to lapses of reason, focus and strength. Without the discomfort that humility brings, we settle for less; we think ourselves unworthy of improvement. 
Carey's high notes, Davis and Portman's gestures and tones – each asked for some portion of humility. Not abject self-loathing, or what Aristotle described as "unduly retiring": this leads to more paralysis. They simply needed to recognise the limits of their abilities; to grant that they were not yet what they hoped to be. And in confronting this, to feel the discomfort of imperfection. 
Yet accomplishment also requires some pleasure in our efforts, and the benefits they bring. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, recognised the importance of joy in oneself. To be overly modest, he said, was "contrary to a law of nature". Those who get no buzz from themselves, he argued in his Summa Theologica​, will shrink from good deeds. Absolute modesty leads to miserable idleness, crushed by its own inferiority. 
It is no coincidence that flourishing asks for this balance of pain and pleasure, humility and pride. As Aristotle noted more than two millennia ago, this is exactly what virtue is: a poise between complementary urges. Too much pride and we become puffed-up pretenders, spruiking our false kudos. Too little and we shrivel altogether.

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