A Parting of the Ways

In ‘The Importance of Being Honest’, I wrote about how critical it is for all of us to be honest with ourselves; to avoid putting on airs, trying to be people we’re not and stifling our emotional development. This time around, I am flipping that coin to look at the other side: the importance of being humble. My friends will laugh at me for having the audacity to believe that I can write with any authority on the matter, but fortune favors the bold, as the proverb goes, and so I will soldier on despite the very real risk of ridicule.

In my experience, limited though it may be, humility is often a lesson learned the hard way and the earlier the better. While I certainly learned it the hard way, I did not have the privilege of embracing it early, though, it is better late than never. Hubris, cockiness, overconfidence — call it what you will, but up until a year or two ago, so convinced was I of my enduring brilliance and preternatural talent that I was sure only the hand of providence could impede my ascent to some nebulous greatness. The fatigues of modesty were easy to assume, but the flares of narcissism not so easy to contain. I was prone to saying that “luck is fickle, but destiny is kind” — an affirmation of my own inevitability. I still remain partial to that little quip, but it has now taken on new meaning.

For those of us whose sense of self is so often tied up in knots of machismo, the veneer of arrogance serves as an effective defense mechanism. It can bolster flagging self-esteem, defuse tense moments, and set aside for another day the problem of a conspicuously absent foundation for self-confidence. Most of the time we don’t really believe what we’re saying, but it’s sufficient that others believe we’re serious. Worn long enough that mask becomes an attitude, intertwined with our character to the point that it becomes difficult to cast aside, even when it’s probably better to do so. Sometimes I wonder who I’d be without my bravado, my affinity for theatrics and my larger-than-life attitude. Certainly not someone I’d recognize in the mirror.

Curiously, those most outwardly arrogant or bombastic are those who struggle the most to establish a foundation for their own self-worth. There’s something to be said for humility then, if it frees you from those chains. From what I can see, those possessed of a genuine humility usually buttress it with a quiet confidence that needs little if any external validation. They’re happier people, by and large, and their inner turmoil, for it must surely exist, generally lies elsewhere. Their relationships are healthier and more intimate, with all of family, friends and the world at large.

The idea that the world truly owes you nothing is a bitter pill to swallow, and often I find myself thinking about the cognitive dissonance we endure when our rational knowledge doesn’t align with our emotional convictions. We want to believe we’re special and worthy, we’ll gladly believe it when we’re told so and even though we may know in abstract terms that we’re not all that different from the guy next door, we retain a conviction that we are. When the trick mirror that displays these illusions is shattered, our reflections become repugnant to us, and we rationalize it away until our emotional convictions are resettled. Put simply, what we feel doesn’t always match what we know and it can be a royal pain in the ass to reconcile.

Furthermore, as the line between confidence and arrogance blurs, we become ever more reckless, convinced, as I was, of our own invincibility and infinite wisdom and so the mistakes begin to creep in to our decision-making. From a purely strategic perspective, the humble approach is the dominant one. It necessitates preparation and giving due respect to any undertaking or interaction; allowing us to err on the side of caution rather than be caught with our pants down because we mouthed off to the wrong person or in the wrong setting, or because we bit off more than we could chew because we were damned sure we could handle more.

If you’re reading this, rest assured that this is no lecture; I’m the last person to be telling people what is and isn’t right. As someone who’s still in the process of making this transition, I still have no answer to the cognitive dissonance that plagues many of us. But here’s to a parting of the ways with the man I used to be, because he’s one stubborn bastard.