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COLUMN: Coming To Understand Humility

Heights Columnist

Published: Monday, December 9, 2013

Updated: Monday, December 9, 2013 05:12

Kwesi Aaron

The Heights, Inc.

“Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin, as self-neglecting.” So wrote William Shakespeare, and in addition, unknowingly gave license for people to indulge in centuries of arrogance and egotism.

We all know the usual suspects. There are the athletes that walk campus with a swagger that says, “Bowl eligible” and a stat sheet that says, “third string.” Sometimes you might catch your friendly neighborhood CSOM student in the dining hall talking just loud enough for the immediate area to know the details of his summer internship at Goldman. Don’t even get me started on the covert-braggers who finish their midterms early and make a meal out of packing up to leave so that everyone could see just how smart and awesome they are. Even famous people have gotten in on the act. Muhammad Ali dedicated tour buses and free verses to his inferior opponents—often describing the beatings he’d give in iambic pentameter (or something of the sort). To the best of my knowledge, Robert Downey, Jr. has not uttered a single humble word in his lifetime. Kanye West made sure to dispense with the inadequate superlatives and dive right into a more appropriate description: “I am a god.”

Although all of the previous examples have seemingly absurd displays of self-servitude, they also have another thing in common—success. Imagine a boxer who isn’t arrogant. “Oh well, I’ll try my best.” “I sure hope I can land a few punches out there.” I doubt anyone could legitimately survive that career acting like a timid deer. The results really speak for themselves, even if our arrogant friends add a few words on top. Over time I’ve come to question our society’s aversion to bragging and arrogance. It seems to be one of the least socially acceptable things to be (second only to exhibitionism and the like). I felt like my eyes deceived me when I read the hatred and vitriol aimed at Cristiano Ronaldo when he unveiled plans of a Cristiano Ronaldo museum on his home island of Madeira. There is nothing more noble than to cut down these narcissistic creatures and remind them that, though they think they are “all that,” they really are not.

But why shouldn’t people feel like they’re great, or even the greatest? I think self-love is a worthy thing to give voice to. The same cocky Muhammad Ali “was the greatest before [he] knew he was.” It doesn’t take trophies and medals for anyone to feel great. All it takes is a mirror and some nerve to shout it out over everything that tells you you’re anything less than. It’s important to give voice to these ideas because self-belief drives all great things we do. No superb action can begin with anything less.

We try to exude the ever-overrated humility in an effort to soften the blow for all those who didn’t make the podium, but that proves to be a futile effort since nothing—especially not the false modesty of a winner—can console them. Every year at the Oscars, someone receives an award and says, “I’m so humbled,” because nothing says humility like a gold statue in honor of your talent.

The only place that these indulgent behaviors go wrong is where they aim to attack a fellow human being. It’s one thing to believe you’re to be great, and it’s another to believe someone else to be smaller than you. Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” He’s certainly right. Competition (and all things are a competition) is really about self-improvement and growth. When I walk out of bed in the morning and say, “I’m so smart, and handsome, too,” not only am I absolutely correct, I am not suggesting anything about anyone else. Even my roommates (bless their hearts) can feel as I do and have equal credibility. The great part about the “Awesome Club” is its room for unlimited members. Every single person can legitimately believe he or she is all that and a piece of pie. Everyone can hold his or her skills, goals and even music tastes in the highest of regards (even country music fans). The alternative is to think you’re “just all right” or perhaps even “bad.” Those thoughts I can no longer abide. It is true that I was once a loyal servant to both humility and self-loathing. There were times when I truly felt like I was worth next to nothing and that my every pursuit was fruitless. I often hid those sentiments behind self-deprecating humor. It is what I thought I was supposed to do. After all, the best and most artistic poets were the ones that roamed the reservoirs at night lamenting over lovers that could have been and successes that could have been had. But I was wrong. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, “The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid … a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.” Not only is this very true, I would extend those views to humility. 

I attack humility because I see it for what it really is—undercutting, underscoring one’s self—the trimming and pruning of a person’s own self-satisfaction and love. Humility says, “you ought to be happy with yourself, but only so much.” Humility needs to change its tune. A better humility would be one that doesn’t restrain happiness, but extends from inside, outward towards others. My version of humility acknowledges that no matter how great anyone gets, they couldn’t do it alone and puts the appropriate people in high regard. I don’t hesitate to thank my parents for driving in me a sense of purpose when I had none, and giving me both confidence and food money when I was running low. The most remarkable feature of self-love is that once you have it in your grasp, it overflows with love that you can share with other very deserving people. Once you carve out space to love yourself fully, you’ll find an even greater supply for everyone else thereafter. So, the next time you see someone bragging, join in. After all, we are all the new rock stars, and I’m the biggest one.

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.

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