Humble Experience Essay

It seems worth pointing out, though, that none of this is what “humbled” actually means. To be humbled is to be brought low or somehow diminished in standing or stature. Sometimes we’re humbled by humiliation or failure or some other calamity. And sometimes we’re humbled by encountering something so grand, meaningful or sublime that our own small selves are thrown into stark contrast — things like history, or the cosmos, or the divine.

“Humbled” is what a politician might have been, in pre-post-truth times, if, say, caught doing the very thing he had campaigned to criminalize. To be “humbled” is to find yourself in the embarrassing position of having to shimmy awkwardly off your pedestal, or your high horse — or some other elevated place that would not have seemed so elevated had you not been so lowly to begin with — muttering apologies and cringing, with your skirt riding up past your granny pants. It is to think you are in a position of fanciness, only to learn to your utter chagrin that you are in a relatively modest one instead. “So, I sold my book for $100,000,” the author Cheryl Strayed told Vulture recently, in a rare example of correct recent usage, “and what I received was a check for about $21,000 a year over the course of four years, and I paid a third of that to the I.R.S. Don’t get me wrong, the book deal helped a lot — it was like getting a grant every year for four years. But it wasn’t enough to live off. So, I guess it was a humbling lesson!”

This is no longer how most of us speak. In the present-day vernacular, people are most humbled by the things that make them look good. They are humbled by the sublimity of their own achievements. The “humblebrag” — a boast couched in a self-deprecating comment — has migrated from subtext to text, leaving self-awareness passed out in the bathroom behind the potted plant.

Diving at random into the internet and social media finds this new humility everywhere. A soap-opera actress on tour is humbled by the outpouring of love from fans. Comedians are humbled by big laughs, yoga practitioners are humbled by achieving difficult poses, athletes are humbled by good days on the field, Christmas volunteers are humbled by their own generosity and holiday spirit.

And yet none of these people sound very “humbled” at all. On the contrary: They all seem exceedingly proud of themselves, hashtagging their humility to advertise their own status, success, sprightliness, generosity, moral superiority and luck.

When did humility get so cocky and vainglorious? I remember the first time, around 15 years ago, that I heard someone describe herself as “blessed.” An old friend of my boyfriend’s came to visit and spent the evening regaling us with stories of her many blessings. She wasn’t especially religious, which somehow made her choice of words worse. Every good thing in her life — friends, job, apartment, decent parking space — was a blessing: i.e., something deliberate, something thoughtfully picked out for her by a higher power. It took a while to put a finger on why it got on my nerves. The problem was that she couldn’t just let herself be lucky, because luck was random, meaningless, undeserved. Luck was a roll of the dice. She had to be chosen.

Something similar happens with “humbled” and “humbling.” Many uses of the word smack of sanctimony and Christian piety. Which is no wonder: Humility is, after all, a Christian virtue. According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, the word humility “signifies lowliness or submissiveness” and may trace back to the Latin humus — “i.e. the earth which is beneath us.” Applied to people and things, it describes “that which is abject, ignoble or of poor condition, as we ordinarily say, not worth much.” Nobody wins an Academy Award and announces that they are humiliated.

What many people mean when they say they’ve been humbled is that they’ve supposedly been reminded for a moment of their human smallness in the face of some gigantic, mysterious force: art, agents, academy voters. It’s farther down in the New Advent entry that we begin to approach this usage: “Humility in a higher and ethical sense is that by which a man has a modest estimate of his own worth and submits himself to others.” “Others” being God, say, or a grand movement or mission, or just the majesty of your own corporate or celebrity overlords. (There are many downsides to our worship of fame and money, and one is that it makes people confuse sucking up to the rich and famous with spirituality.) Maybe that humbled soap actress was moved to recognize a modest estimate of her own worth and submit herself to her fans. Maybe Conway, as an adviser to the president, was moved to recognize a modest estimate of the value of her work — the work of uncoupling words from their meanings and spinning them into peaky meringues — and submit herself to the power of the office of the presidency.

But it is one thing to stand awed before the highest office in the land and quite another to stand awed before a kind word from a peer, or the purchase of a new luxury car, or the posting of an especially good Instagram picture. The word is, more and more often, just a kneejerk, a tic of false piety and blind worship.

“We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” was the supplicant cry of Garth and Wayne in “Wayne’s World.” Twenty-five years later, we’ve forgotten that this was supposed to be funny. We brag about being humble to our voter base, fan base, Twitter followers. We close our eyes in gratitude for our success. We look up in beatific wonder at all we have accomplished. We bow our heads in recognition of this thing that’s bigger than us, than our massive egos, and we’re humbled by its immensity. And why not? It’s got to be huge to eclipse us.

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1. Working for less than you’re worth.

When it comes to work, everybody has a price in the marketplace. That’s just the reality. Whether your value is in a product, your knowledge, education, experience, creativity, brand, potential, one of these, or all of these, the marketplace has a range for you. But especially when you’re younger, you’re going to probably work for less than that value. And you will feel everything from frustration to envy, but you must focus on the bigger picture at hand. Sometimes you have to do the small things in order to prepare you for great things. Never lose sight of that.

2. Getting rejected by someone you are probably more of a catch than.

I know this is probably an awful thing to think but you know what? We’ve all thought it. The truth is if you’ve been rejected by someone who should want you back, it will call into question your attractiveness, your personality, and your general perception of self. And it’s a good thing because it’s a reminder of that wonderful quote, “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and somebody is still not going to like peaches.” But not only that, you might even get rejected by a prune. Still, it’s something you should appreciate because it shows that hearts either connect or they don’t. And maybe that has nothing to do with the endless list of reasons we come up with, and judge ourselves for, every time we want someone who doesn’t want us back.

3. Seeing you ex better off without you.

I know in the depth of our souls, we all want to be the kind of people who wish well on the people we used to be with. And we might even want them to be happy in the long-run. Because that is perfect kindness and goodness and love. Alas, most of us are imperfect and sometimes it feels like a slap in the face by the universe when your ex is doing much better without you. And it is especially awful and humbling if things didn’t end well or your memories of them are not good ones. Karma, does not in fact, work in the way we think it does. It is important to remember, however, that even though it may not seem like it in the moment, one of the many blessings you can probably count later on in life is your ex being just that – an ex. But most importantly, even if you have to learn this from your ex’s happiness, it’s always good to know that broken hearts can heal.

4. Losing friends you thought would be there for a lifetime.

Some friendships break up because of major things – like arguments that never get resolved or unsolvable fundamental differences. Some friendships break up because one or both people stop putting in effort. Some friendships break up because of time, distance, and everything in between. Either way, when you lose a good friend, it hurts a lot. Maybe not immediately, maybe not in a stark, defining way. But it hurts in little ways. The good news is that you can always learn things from old friendships, and you can always get better at being a good friend. It is one of the single, most important things you will ever learn in this lifetime.

5. People who are objectively not as talented or hard-working, moving up the career ladder faster.

Talent and hard work are interesting things when we juxtapose them against success, or at least the idea of success. In the first place, success looks different on anyone. But there is no use in pretending there isn’t a societal perception of what constitutes success. We, as a society, are always in argument about such things. And if you are talented, and you do work hard and you still feel like you’re much more behind than you should be, you will feel the panic, anxiety, and fear of the possibility of never realizing all the dreams you are capable of. The truth is it’s a terrifying feeling, but we must take solace from the fact that our path to success may be different from someone else’s. Learn from the success’ of others, let it motivate you. But stay true to your path too, especially when it gets uncomfortable.

6. Having to accept that it might take you a decade or longer to get where you want to be in your career.

I do believe in vocations more than I believe in “careers” but either way, most of the time in our twenties, we’re still impressionable enough to want more. And if you are one of those hungry people, it can feel stifling to realize there are limitations and speed bumps in different capacities that hold you back from getting to where you want to be. However, one thing a culture of immediate gratification cannot provide you with is a time machine or a reading of the future. Embrace the things you learn as you’re leaning them because it will all be part of your story eventually. And who really wants a straightforward, boring story on the way to achieving their dreams?

7. Quitting a passion that you were once good at.

In your twenties, you’ll quickly discover that there are a lot of passions you probably should have explored further. And there will be a temptation to regret, and mull over “What ifs?” Well, here’s the thing: You can “What if” till the day you die. But that never got anyone, anywhere. It’s hard to say goodbye to things that we were really good at or that we loved. It’s hard to walk away. But at times, it is necessary in order to make room for the things that you need right now. Whatever your former passion was, it probably prepared you for whatever your future passions will be. So thank it, and remember it fondly. But ultimately, let go.

8. Having a less than ideal living space.

With the incessant showcasing of lives, it’s so easy to compare what you have with what other people have. And I find this is especially true in the area of “lifestyle.” But having a crappy living space humbles you because you realize how little you really need. And there is value to this because you appreciate what you have even more. It’s not easy not being proud of where you live but you realize that it’s as a much a function of your mental perception, as it is the physical space you’re in. Moreover, when you do found yourself in a better position to create a space that you love, you choose simply, you choose wisely, and you choose gratefully.

9. Realizing that you missed out on a great life opportunity.

Whether it’s a job or a travel opportunity or relocating or going to school or being with a person – you’ve probably missed a wonderful opportunity at some point in your twenties. And it’s easy to hold onto that regret especially when it becomes apparent that the course of your life might have been different, better. But we all have to partake in our own destiny. And it is a falsehood to reduce our lives to missing one chance. What we can learn from missed opportunities is that we ought to practice courage more; we ought to risk the known for the unknown. And we ought to believe that it is better for us to choose, no matter the outcome, than for life to choose for us.

10. Being broke, cash-strapped, and living on a prayer.

Unless you have very generous parents, have never faced any uncertainty in your twenties, or are just one of those people who has never had to struggle much, you probably have never felt what it’s like to fear even looking at your bank account. For those of us who have bore witness to the struggle, it is indeed a very humbling thing not to have enough money in the bank to meet your needs. But let me tell you, it is the thing that creativity and inspiration is made of. You will find that you are a hell of a lot tougher than you think you are when you’ve got to face some of the harsh realities of life. And you will be a better person for it. Ideally, it will leave you with a greater understanding of the value of money. But it will also teach you invaluable things that are much more powerful than anything monetary.

11. Unexpectedly having to take a job out of necessity.

There is nothing quite like taking a job you already know you’re going to wake up feeling anxious about, but taking it anyway because you have to pay the bills. You will feel mentally drained, emotionally exhausted, and sometimes will even wonder whether it’s even worth it. But if your job is not worse than being unemployed – another humbling experience – you will learn at the end of each month to be grateful that you have what you do have. Indeed, you have to embrace the dead-end jobs too because if nothing else, they teach you about endurance; they teach you about yourself.

12. Being unequivocally wrong about something fundamental to who you are.

Nobody at any age likes to admit that they were wrong about something. Nobody likes to admit that they were wrong about something important. Because when we are wrong about important things, our world view shifts. And for most people, that is an uncomfortable shift. So when we do experience it, we fight it for as long as we can. But when we learn to embrace the fact that we are sometimes going to be wrong, even about important things, we embrace our humanity as people who are always learning. And in so doing, we become compassionate to the people around us who are learning too.

13. Realizing that some people in their 20s have it figured out.

I am definitely of the opinion that you should not judge other people’s lives, until you have read all their chapters. As I read somewhere once, “Everybody has a chapter in their life they don’t read out loud.” That being said, there are some people we just look at and go, “How do they do it?” How are they so “together?” And how are you so…not? Still, I tell you that you that there is beauty in brokenness, there is beauty in struggle, there is beauty in breaking down and re-building, and trying and failing, and getting up, and trying again. Embrace the parts of your life that make you most human. And if you ever need some encouragement, heed the following words from a good friend of mine, “Show me someone who has all their shit together, and I will show you someone who will amount to fuck all.”


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