Genuine Humility: Why Accepting Our Flaws Also Requires a Cultural Shift

In common language, humility is defined as being the state of having a low assessment of one’s value. Considered to be one of our ultimate virtues, like self-sacrifice, modesty (in this conception) is often praised, while pride is just as often censured; one is good and the other bad. So, as you can imagine, our world is full of people who, on the one hand, exude false modesty, only pretending to believe that they’re less than and, on the other, are highly narcissistic. (Of course there are also those whose low self-assessments are genuine.)

In fostering mental health, it’s necessary to conceive of one’s wholeness, whereby you take account of their varied features, to the extent that you’re aware of them. And, humility is best defined as an accurate assessment of who one is; therefore, it’s more of a path than a rigid state. Since reality is so harsh, and we know that beauty, race, gender, socioeconomic status, and intelligence contribute to biased treatment, most resort to telling white lies to make others feel good about themselves. Yet, in doing so, they create the potential for exposure and diminished trust. If you were to tell me that I was attractive when you didn’t believe so, there’s a high probability that I would eventually uncover your secret.

But, honestly, should I be so upset with you for lying? At the root of our lies and false modesty is a society that unjustly rewards some while dismissing others. If I hide my intelligence, I do so because another would be enviousness, which, in turn, would stem from general injustice (and to gain approval as modesty in its common form is indicative of empathy). We know that the intelligent, like the beautiful, are often overvalued, meaning that one can attain and maintain a position based on potential alone, albeit his luck won’t last forever. We see a version of this in sports when an athlete with a high degree of talent and low-level drive is, nonetheless, granted a multi-million dollar contract to the fans’ chagrin. Thus, there’s a hyper-sense of unfairness. And, this sort of culture is ultra-competitive and values inherent traits as much as and, sometimes, even more than diligence. Sound familiar?

The paradox, then, is one wherein we have to strive to become more beautiful or knowledgable while sustaining a pretense of inferiority. How the hell can we, then, engender intimacy, with ourselves or one another? It’s easy to point to the individual and say, “Well, she should just accept her limits, because she has a big head.” But, that’s difficult to do in a culture which shuns her for them. Looking around, the biases are fairly obvious. Those considered to be overweight are often overlooked as potential partners or employees, shorter men (and by this I mean those of less than average height) don’t have many dating prospects, and those with average IQs are frequently considered to be stupid. In a black and white way, it seems, you’re either first or last. Therefore, when you attempt to convince someone who isn’t beautiful that it’s all right to be average looking, she looks at you in horror. So, it’s easier to lie.

But, lying suffers an inevitable defeat, thus necessitating an alternative method. In fostering humility, in addition to self-awareness and acceptance, we also need to diminish the toxic aspects of our culture. Instead of simply telling one to accept her limits, we ought to make doing so feel okay. The problem is less about the individual and more about his context. One can only accept her flaws if she believes that her strengths will matter. If you disqualify someone for being short, the implicit message is, game over. In failing to conceptualize, and accept, the individual on the whole, placing all of our efforts and attention into the highly prized, we contribute to the inevitability of false flattery and subsequent disillusionment.

We wouldn’t have to strive for the impossible or pretend we aren’t who we are if we chose to create a somewhat different culture. Instead of placing all of one’s attention onto the beautiful girl, we can remind ourselves that the less physically attractive one has value in different areas. In failing to hire the brilliant candidate, we can focus on the conscientious one with a lower IQ who offers value in his efforts. In a nutshell, we can develop a context that’s more conducive to self-acceptance.

Desirable qualities will always be desirable as they’ll always confer unearned advantages; the question is one of type. As a collective, we can self-examine and ask which benefits could and shouldn’t continue to be granted. True modesty is only possible with nuance, in a society that doesn’t dismiss those who aren’t at its peaks. I, sometimes, hear women say, “I’d be happier if I were prettier.” And, the reality is it’s true, at least in terms of unearned benefits (which includes potential mates). If we want to make it easier for people to accept their wholeness, we may want to take a second look at their distribution.

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