To look up into the night sky and say, “I understand how it all came to be” is an enormous oversimplification of the beauty of existence. We know nothing of this universe, and anyone who tells us differently – claiming god’s handy work, or the work of few great men – has severely overestimated their level of self-importance.
This belief that we are somehow the rule to the exception – the chosen one – is the last great obstacle standing between us and unimaginable progress. What it will take to overcome this hurdle is humility from us all.
Humility means having a low opinion of our individual importance. It comes from accepting that in the large scheme of things, we are small change. This does not mean we are unconfident or easy to boss around. It means we are humbled by the sheer weight of unanswerable questions pertained in this universe.
I want to be clear that humility does not require us to think less of ourselves. It requires us to think of ourselves less. It comes from asking questions whilst being aware that in most cases our monkey brain is too young and primitive to understand the answers. It comes from recognising that the benefits of learning far outweigh the benefits of teaching. It comes from doing things for the joy of doing them, rather than the pride we get from achieving them.
Humility allows us to flourish. After all, a truly gifted thinker cannot be a gifted thinker without acknowledging that they know nothing. A truly benevolent person cannot be benevolent without acknowledging that we are all equal. And a truly inspiring person cannot be an inspiration without acknowledging that a big part of leadership is taking a knee and getting our hands dirty.
As Hemingway put it, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self”. And as Churchill put it, “The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes”. Pair these statements together and we have perhaps the greatest case for humility we can get.
This is not to say that achieving humility is easy. I myself am far from gaining a handle on repressing my ego. But that’s not to say I don’t recognise its worth. Life is a long lesson in humility. Not just because grasping humility is a daily struggle, but because true humility does not know it is humble. For as soon as it does, it finds pride in its humbleness.
This considered, perhaps the only answer to finding humility is love. Love of questioning. Love of not knowing. Love of people. Love of ourselves. Love allows us see the unique qualities of others without feeling small. It allows us to see that it is a privilege to play in a world brimming with beauty. And it allows us to be satisfied with playing a part, regardless of how small.
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot
After millennia of philosophical debate, the issue was settled decisively in favour of “the plurality of worlds”. They might be profoundly different from our planet. None of them might be as congenial for life. But the Earth was hardly the only one. This was the next in the series of Great Demotions, downlifting experiences, demonstrations of our apparent insignificance, wounds that science has, in its search for Galileo’s facts, delivered to human pride.
Well, some hoped, even if the Earth isn’t at the centre of the Universe, the Sun is. The Sun is our Sun. So the Earth is approximately at the centre of the Universe. Perhaps some of our pride could in this way be salvaged. But by the nineteenth century, observational astronomy had made it clear that the Sun is but one lonely star in a great self-gravitating assemblage of suns called the Milky Way Galaxy. Far from being at the centre of the Galaxy, our Sun with its entourage of dim and tiny planets lies in an undistinguished sector of an obscure spiral arm. We are thirty thousand light years from the Centre.
Well, our Milky Way is the only galaxy. The Milky Way Galaxy is one of billions, perhaps hundreds of billions of galaxies notable neither in mass nor in brightness nor in how its stars are configured and arrayed. Some modern deep sky photographs show more galaxies beyond the Milky Way than stars within the Milky Way. Every one of them is an island universe containing perhaps a hundred billion suns.
Such an image is a profound sermon on humility.