The question is no longer if we can afford our humility, but rather can we really afford our own arrogance?
Without humility, our overblown sense of entitlement disconnects us. It increases narcissism and reduces empathy. That may be good for the economy but certainly not for societal well-being. A couple of months ago I was in Bhutan with the folks who implemented Gross National Happiness, and from them I learned about some remarkable research at the University of Michigan. It turns out that ever since 1980, our empathy levels have been gradually dropping, but in 2000, they suddenly plummeted 40 percent. Forty! Not surprisingly, a Gallup report just released last week reported that the US has dropped from 12th position to number 23 on the global well-being index. It’s a strange paradox, we are at the same time, more self-centered than ever, and less happy and healthy for it.
With humility, though, we can give birth to a whole new story.
Humility is seen as a sign of weakness, in today’s culture, when, in reality, it is the gateway for an unparalleled and profound strength.
We see examples of this across all wisdom traditions. In Sikhism, Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth of their ten gurus, offered this credo to all the warriors: “Humility is my mace; becoming the dust of everybody’s feet is my sword. No evil can withstand that.” Jesus Christ washed the feet of his disciples, the 12 apostles, and then adds, “Know ye what I have? I have given you an example.” At another point, he explicitly states, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” In Jainism, as you all know, there is the powerful practice of Micchami Dukkadam on the last day of the holy Paryushan period, where Jains actively seek and offer forgiveness: “If I have caused you offense in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word or deed, then I seek your forgiveness.” Every year, on this day, I receive many such emails from Jain friends. Simply being on the receiving end is such a humbling feeling, that I can only imagine what it means to be on the other end.
The first doorway is the power of many.
In the absence of humility, we forget the shoulders that we stand on, and foolishly begin to take singular credit for what we’re doing. I remember my mom telling me a parable from the Mahabharata. A dog is traveling on Krishna’s chariot, and lo and behold, when the dog wagged its tail to the right, the chariot turned to the right. And when he wagged it left, the chariot turned to the left. It was an example of correlation, not causation, and it would have been nothing short of ludicrous for the dog to actually believe it was controlling the chariot with its tail. Yet, that is precisely how our arrogance deceives us. We forget that behind each one of us lies an invisible stream of conditions that supports our every move.
The second doorway that humility opens is the power of one.
Last year, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Francois Pienaar, a rugby legend who was very close to Nelson Mandela — and famously played by Matt Damon in the movie Invictus. As he shared many personal encounters with Mandela, the thing that struck me was how practically every story spoke to Mandela’s humility.
One of the most pivotal moments in Francois’s life came when he visited Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island. Holding his arms out, he said, “This is what how much space he lived in, for 27 straight years. I grew up thinking he was a terrorist. All Afrikaners did. And yet he come out of jail with an open heart that can hold everyone.” Indeed, Mandela’s first words, after being released from jail: “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but a humble servant.” Humble. Servant.
The third, and subtlest, doorway of humility is the power of zero.
I recently met a 96 year old Sufi saint named Dada Vaswani. He has a great many followers around the world, is highly respected by monks and nuns from various traditions, and radiates a profound sense of peace. I was deeply grateful to meet him. But his first words to me were, “I’m so grateful to have met you.” It wasn’t just a pleasantry, he really meant it. And it wasn’t because he thought I was special — he just knew that everyone is special. Because everyone is connected to everything, and the whole show is sacred.
To probe into this idea of being an instrument, of being zero, I asked him about Bodhisattvas. Similar to Jinas in Jainism, Buddhists define Bodhisattvas as beings who forsake their own liberation for the sake of others. He paused for moment, locked eyes with mine and recited a poem by Shantideva. One deliberate word after another.
May I be a guard for those who need protection,
A guide for those on the path,
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood.
May I be a lamp in the darkness,
A resting place for the weary,
A healing medicine for all who are sick,
A vase of plenty, a tree of miracles;
And for the boundless multitudes of living beings,
May I bring sustenance and awakening,
Enduring like the earth and sky
Until all beings are freed from sorrow,
And all are awakened.
When our gifts to the world are draped in such humility and reverence, an unspeakable thunder roars behind those rain drops. And this is precisely what Jainism invites us to do. Bow to all life, Ahimsa; bow to others points of view, Anekantvad; bow to our inter-connection, Aparigraha.
When we bow to all that is, we reframe our understanding of success and accomplishment. We discover that everyone is good at something. That anyone can find greatness in giving, and that each is connected to all. We know then that our job is simply to be like the sparrow, and do our little bit to hold up the sky. Like my young friend who broke a piece of bread and offered up that bite, may we always strive to serve one another in small ways. And to hold a piece of each others’ prayers.