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The Lost Art of Humility

How to cultivate this dying virtue at unprecedented times

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American politics hit a new low. The first Presidential Debate was marred by an unprecedent level of rudeness and hostility displayed by the two candidates vying for the Presidential Office. Many were appalled by their unrestrained behavior. 

Unfortunately, I cannot say I was surprised. It does not take a psychiatrist to have foreseen the fracas. 

What occurred at the Presidential Debate is a microcosm of what is transpiring in our society. Our country is deeply divided. We are entrenched in our positions and no longer seek to understand different points of view. We have forgotten how to engage in civil discourse and politely disagree. We reflexively reject anyone who does not reinforce our viewpoint. 

As I watched the two candidates trade verbal blows, I was overcome with immense sadness. I was coming to grips with a painful realization.

Humility is a dying virtue. 

Humility came to be valued in Western culture with the birth of Christianity. Today, it is dying partly due to the expansion of social media where people present a glamorized version of themselves in pursuit of self-promotion. When we compare our real, messy life to someone’s presentation of how perfect their life, there is no room for humility. Rather, we join the race of boasting and bragging about our achievements.

Its demise may also be explained by mere ignorance. Humility is often misinterpreted as weakness, fragility and meekness. 

Perhaps humility is dying because the most humble do not describe themselves as such. They are not jumping on social media to brag about how humble they are. 

What is humility?

It is the acceptance that you are no better or worse than anyone else. You are a mere mortal, one of nearly 7.5 billion living on this planet. 

Self-awareness is a trait of humble individuals. They recognize that they have blind spots and have a constant desire to improve. They are open to listening and learning from the perspective of others. They avoid the trap of overconfidence which clouds judgment and decision making.

Humility does not make one immune to mistakes. However, humble individuals accept responsibility and apologize for their mistakes. High quality apologies are extremely effective in promoting reconciliation.

A dose of humility would be a great first step to help reduce conflict and heal the wounds of our divided country. It has even been shown to help repair relationships.

There is hope because humility can be developed. Like many traits, it takes intentional and consistent effort. 

It starts with accepting that you are not better than anyone else. Your degrees, profession, salary, wealth, CV or material possessions do not make you any more worthy. Self-worth is not derived from such accomplishments. It is an inherent and innate part of our humanity.

The personal example I often share is that my father is a cook and my mother a cashier at a grocery store. With their love and support, I became a physician. From a professional standpoint, I may have achieved more than my parents. However, does this make me a more worthy human being than them? Of course not! 

Humility is also developed by welcoming feedback from others. You listen to what they have to say. You seek to understand and learn from their perspective. It may help you identify and eliminate personal biases which can negatively impact others. 

As a physician, I have had the privilege of learning so many important life lessons from my patients. Even though they have different racial, socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, they all have a story to share. Listening carefully to them has provided me with a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that expands beyond my medical training or psychiatric textbooks. 

Finally, humility is developed by letting go of our tendency to achieve for the sake of keeping up with others. You do not achieve because you want to be more successful than others. Such a mindset will get you stuck on a hedonistic treadmill in which you constantly chase the next achievement to avoid the feeling of falling behind. Humble individuals do not accomplish goals because they want to be the center of attention or receive all the credit. They primarily achieve because they want to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  

As we approach upcoming presidential debates, let us hope the candidates will heed this advice. Instead of trying to outclass each other with verbal insults, I hope they convey a message that focuses on healing our hurting nation. 

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    People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

    - MARCUS AURELIUS

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