This new year, be humble…

If there’s one new year’s resolution we all need to make AGAIN, it is to be more humble.

We need to listen more, and speak less.
See the strength in modesty.
And resign our egos—or at least try to.
Because the world depends on it.

Most of our problems today are driven by what lies opposite to humility: egotism, attention-seeking, pride, greed, deceit, and the need for power. These traits, while differing in their specific nature, have been known to culminate in some of the most destructive personalities in human history. They also underlie many of the problematic behaviours seen throughout our species, from acts of cruelty and injustice to climate change denialism.

For the past year, our lives have been dominated by a microorganism—a simple virus. Yet much of the world has still not conceded to the reality that we are NOT the masters of the earth we once imagined

When the pandemic was in its infancy, I suggested that the lesson for humanity was humility. (You can read that original post here—The Lesson, Again, is Humility.) I still agree with that conclusion, but I do not mean to say that humility is the only lesson in this. Of course there are many others, perhaps most notably that our relationship with the natural world is deeply flawed and in need of repair, as viruses like COVID-19 are more likely to arise as deforestation and encroachment on natural habitats persist. (You can read more about that here.) The pandemic has also taught us a lot about leadership; about what makes “good” and “bad” leaders when the world is faced with a crisis of this magnitude. But humility IS a big lesson in all of this. We have been brought to our proverbial knees by the pandemic—by a “simple” virus—and we would be wise to see ourselves as the vulnerable species that we truly are. However resilient we may be as a collective, we are equally vulnerable as individuals. This is not a weakness being exposed; to the contrary, this is the power of nature.

In consideration of the things that lie opposite to humility, they have also played a role in the pandemic as they have in other human crises. Self-interest and fear have driven racist and xenophobic attitudes related to COVID-19; ego has fueled disinformation and conspiracy theories online, which have compromised the ability of health agencies to mitigate the spread of the virus; and vaccine hesitancy, which emerged before the vaccine itself, is grounded in narcissism and the inability to accurately weigh personal opinion against the expertise of scientists and doctors. (And this will surely mean more unnecessary deaths from the novel coronavirus.) The truth is that what lies opposite to humility plays a role in almost everything that keeps us up at night. (I should not have to justify the need for more humility in this world.)

If there were a specific kind of humility I would advocate, it would be intellectual humility first, which is an openness to being proven wrong, and a recognition of one’s intellectual shortcomings. At the most basic level, it means acknowledging that you do not know everything. In conversations in-person or online, it means listening, thinking critically, and foregoing once and for all the seemingly essential need to be right all of the time. The truth is that you’re not always right, and furthermore, you’re not better than anyone else, either. You’re also going to keep making mistakes, believing in false gods, and ultimately, more often than not, you’re going to be wrong, too. Because you’re human. Humility doesn’t mean silence and self-abasement. It’s not submission. It’s truth. The humble person is the one who checks their biases at the door, tries to maintain a noticeable degree of awareness (of self and others), and forsakes the selfish premise that they are the centre of anything.

In actuality, we are in this together, both means and ends of connections and relationships, embedded in everything around us. But we are the centres of nothing. We are neither the centre of the universe nor the centre of our own social sphere. And that’s okay. What results from acceptance of this reality is balance. In this balance there is no ego, no attention-seeking, no attempt to be better than anyone else (or to know more than anyone else). You are just a person, too. In this balance is the opportunity for not only cooperation, but also positive growth, both individually and collectively. In this balance is the opportunity to overcome any challenge (perhaps even the challenges of this past year).

So as another new year is upon us, set a resolution with some depth. Consider a kind of change that matters. If you want to do something good for this world, start by being humble…

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