The Wonderful Song of Humility

Regenerations/3 - A virtue that is not loved by economy, but is key for the future

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 09/08/2015

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...and when I see the stars burn up in heaven,
I ask myself:
Why all these lights? What does the endless air do, and that deep
eternal blue? What does this enormous
solitude portend?
And what am I?

(Giacomo Leopardi, Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia English translation by Jonathan Galassi)

Humility is one of those virtues that the economy and big firms do not really like even if they have a vital need of it. As it is increasingly modelled on corporate values, our culture fails to see the beauty and the value of humility, and so it gets "humiliated".

In fact, the virtues practiced and powered by large enterprises and organizations feed on anti-humility. To make a career and be appreciated one has to boast one's own merits, show a "winning" mentality and attitude, be more ambitious than the others competing for the same position. We must seek and desire what is at the top, and escape from the bottom where there is the earth, humus, humilitas.

Ours is not a humble era. Past generations and those whose sun is sinking now knew humility very well and they recognized it, too. They had learned to discover it hidden on earth, by having experiences of the margins, something done only by those who know the earth by their own hands. It is by touching the bricks, the wood, the coarse tools of work, poor clothes, little food, the machines in factories and workshops that used to let us discover the earth, and it is by dialoguing with it that we used to learn the trades and the craft of living. The culture of the generations that lived through the great wars and the holocausts and still managed to save their faith in God and man was a humble culture, because those men and women loved, esteemed and rewarded humility.

Humility is a virtue of adult life. Children and young people should not be humiliated in order to make them humble. Humiliation caused by others does not produce humility, but a thousand distortions of character. The only good type of humiliation is what comes from life, without anyone there to procure it intentionally. Children and young people are trained for humility by putting them in touch with beauty and art, with nature and spirituality, with poetry, fairy tales and great literature. It is by meeting the infinite that we realise how finite we are, yet inhabited by a breath of eternity, and when the experience of touching the infinite is accompanied by the highest expressions of the human, the finiteness does not crush us but raises us and the limit does not stifle us but makes us live. When we raise our eyes and feel how "infinite and immortal" the sky is, the ground where humility can blossom is formed in us.

Furthermore, humility is formed in the relationship with one's peers: in comparison with peers, with brothers and sisters. The reduction of the number and biodiversity of the companions of our children, replaced by "functional" meetings (swimming, music...) and above all by too many "all-powerful" encounters with machines (TV, smartphone, tablet...), inevitably changes and reduces occasions for the good experiences of the limit, and therefore threatens the development of humility. An essential meeting for the birth of humility is the one with death and disease, from the earliest years of life. If we hide the sight of dying grandparents and relatives from our children, if we do not bring kids to funerals or to visit sick relatives and friends, it distances and complicates their encounter with the law of the earth and does not favour the maturation of humility in them. Education without a limit and without limits cannot teach humility.

Many seniors and elderly people are witnesses and teachers of humility, because life has had the time to make them humble. In previous civilizations, their presence was essential for their function of teaching of humility. The distance from the earth that had generated them and the close proximity of the second that awaited them offered a different and equally essential perspective on living, which could be passed on to all. For this reason the world of big business, built on the psychological registers of adolescence and youth (hence the wide use of sports metaphors, almost all improper), does not know or understand humility.

Humility is seen at its best as a universal law that we find at the heart of many virtues and other great things of life: you become humble without actually realizing it. Humility comes as we seek something else: justice, truth, honesty, loyalty or agape. It cannot be programmed, but it can be desired, estimated, waited for as a gift from life. And if we wait for it, sooner or later it will arrive, as a surprise. It often comes in moments of weakness, after a failure, abandonment or bereavement, when humility flourishes from inside humiliation. Love for humility is the foundation of every good life, because it does not allow you to take possession of your own virtues and the gifts received.

Humility is an "unspeakable" virtue, and it is radically relational: only others can and must recognize our humility, and we recognize theirs, in a game of reciprocity which is the grammar of good civic life. It is invisible, but very real, and we know how to recognize it - even if we are not equally humble, even if we are not humble at all but we want to be: the desire of humility is already humility. Its fruits are unmistakable. The first is the sincere "gratitude" felt over life, others and one's parents which comes from the awareness that my talents, my merits, my beauty, are a gift, "charis," grace. Humility is to acknowledge the truth about the world and life. It is born naturally, it is an act of the soul and it does not require efforts of will; it is a recognition emerging one day as something clear. We understand that our share in the most beautiful and greatest things is very small, in fact, tiny, because all that we are and what we possess we have simply received from the generosity of life.

Everything is grace. But to get to this natural act and radical of gratitude an ethical exercise of love for the truth is required, which lasts throughout adult life, and ends - with that last act of gratitude - when we take leave from this world, only grateful and humble at last. Humility, therefore, is nothing more than access to a deeper truth. That's why it is a great gift. Those who are humble are always grateful. Their "thank you"-s are rare because they are precious. They are born from the awareness of the beauty and goodness of those who live together with them - there is a deeper and more real beauty of the people and the world that is revealed only to the humble. And only the humble know how to pray.

A second signal of its presence is the ability to say "sorry" and "forgive me." There are conflicts that are not healed because everyone involved is convinced that he or she is completely right, and so waits for the other to apologize. But because the certainty of being right is reciprocal, parties remain stuck in relational traps that end up swallowing families, friends, communities, businesses and sometimes entire peoples. To get out of these traps at least "one" humble person is needed, one who is able to apologize even if not feeling responsible for the conflict - and maybe he/she isn’t, either. That person takes the first step of reconciliation because it is in his/her interests to rebuild the damaged "relationship" first, and it is a stronger force than wanting to see the responsibilities and the guilt of the various parties involved recognized. It is because he/she knows that only after having reconstructed the relationship will it be possible and necessary to reconstruct the weave of responsibilities for all that happened.

Pronouncing this "sorry" and "forgive me" is particularly difficult in hierarchical relationships, and therefore it is very valuable, too. It is difficult to say "sorry" to a superior with humility: it's much easier not to say anything, or say it out of fear or opportunism. But it is even more difficult for a director to apologize to one of their employees. No regulation of the company and no code of ethics require them to do so. But only few words like "forgive me" said by a manager to a worker of his team can give ethical and human dimensions to the entire workgroup. These are words that create a spirit of solidarity and brotherhood within the work team that manages to do well even in times of trouble only if and when its members feel that they all share the same fate, that they are all equal before the differences in salary and responsibility are taken into account. A sincere and humble "thank you" and "sorry" uttered by a manager create more team spirit than a hundred team building courses that in the absence of these profound words end up looking too much like the games played by our pre-adolescent children. Humility, however, like other great words of life, makes us stronger and more resistant while making us more vulnerable. Thanking and apologizing to each other actually makes managers and executives more fragile in a world where invulnerability is the first and most important value. It's like showing a wound, our own and that of others, because we want to heal it. But in the completely male dominated registers of business relations, these wounds have neither sense nor space. So they do not heal, they are hidden, become infected and poison the whole body.

The corporate world of the West is suffering a serious deprivation of new ruling classes because there is an awful lack of a culture of humility. In fact, it has been removed by practices and ideologies inspired by anti-humility, where the one who is humble is only a "loser". The first lesson of leadership courses should be on humility. It is a lesson that is missing everywhere for lack of teachers and because humility cannot be taught in business schools; but above all because if you were to start praising humility and her sisters (meekness, mercy, generosity...) the whole culture of leadership with its techniques would have to be completely reversed. Humility teaches us to follow. A manager who has not been trained to follow - the others, each and every other person, the poor, the best and truest part of themselves - will never be a good guide or a real leader.

The value of a complete lifetime is measured by the humility that it has been able to generate. Humility is essential to live and resist during great trials. When life makes us fall down and we touch ground (humus), we do not get hurt too much and we can stand up again if we have learned about the earth (the ground we have just touched) and if we have become its friends. Without humility you cannot reach human excellence, you cannot learn a profession really well, you do not ever really become adults. It is the last word of each and every Canticle of the Creatures.


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