A couple of decades ago my wife and I were at the house of friends for dinner. My friend—I will call him Jim—and I were talking about what sort of books we were reading. At the time I was reading books about how to succeed as a salesman and how to maintain a positive attitude. My business involved connecting with a lot of people and selling.
Jim grabbed a fat book from a nearby table and said, “This is what I have been reading.” The title was “Humility.” I believe my entire comment was “Oh….” Jim said, “It’s very good.” For whatever reason—perhaps the fact that the title put me off—I didn’t ask any questions about it, and our conversation turned to other things.
What is important for you to know is that everyone loved Jim. That was because he was simply a terrific human being. One of his qualities was that he always had more than enough time to listen—and to just about anyone. At the time we had a mutual acquaintance with plenty of personal problems, problems he was willing to tell you about and—to my mind—annoy you with, for as long as you would listen. Once at some sort of gathering I noticed Jim with this fellow. Jim was listening and this fellow was talking—for a long time. I thought, how can he waste so much time with that guy. No sooner had that thought entered my head than I recalled how Jim had often listened to me. On those occasions he hadn’t just taken turns talking. He had shown genuine interest. He had asked questions. The rather one-sided conversations had made me feel intelligent and important.
Jim happened to be a doctor at a time when most doctors were the experts who told patients what was what and patients were meant to listen. But Jim asked questions and he did the listening. He was a humble man in the best sense. I am not sure what reading a book on humility could add to what he already was.
None of this means that Jim was a wall-flower. He liked talking about cars, houses, local issues. He loved competitive sports—but for participation, not for watching. He was honest and vulnerable and therefore easy to know.
Jim’s brand of humility can seem out of fashion these days. The leader of my country, judging by the amount of invective he employs, seems intent on exemplifying the antithesis of humility. And, unfortunately, those of us who are critical of him sometimes load our criticism with invective of our own.
But perhaps true humility is not out of style. I am thinking of a woman who serves on several service committees. She speaks quietly but sensibly and forcefully to problems. She is great at helping people reach consensus. She gives her time generously whether for the environment, for the health of a cherished organization, or to simply help a friend.
And I am thinking of a warm and personable man who patiently cultivates relationships with others in a way that results in good things happening. Somehow, he gets good speakers to arrive at events. He works behind the scenes to make sure venues function as smoothly as possible. He sometimes firmly states an opinion out of sync with others, but his final goal is moving ahead for the mutual good. And he is always a little embarrassed if praised for his efforts.
We all know such people—people who apparently don’t need to assert themselves for egotistical reasons. Their strong sense of themselves lets them simply apply themselves to life in a positive way. Their lack of bold assertivenes can fool us into underestimating their value to us and the world.
Jim died about twenty years ago when he was far too young. I have sometimes wondered how many lives were lifted by his care—not only his professional medical care—but the care he offered, seemingly, to everyone he met. And when I come across the word “humility,” whether in conversation or in print, the memory of Jim sometimes flashes in my mind.
The origin of the word humble is the Latin word “humus” meaning “earth,” “soil,” or “ground.” Perhaps—each in our own way—we can emulate the people we know who are so down to earth that they rise above ego to be a light in the world. Maybe we can help assure that true humility remains in style.Share: by