In an age where we all can be broadcasters and publishers and personal brands and some of us have hundreds or thousands of friends and followers, the idea of humility may seem a bit quaint and dated. However, in an age of always on, always connected and need it a millisecond faster, humility can be a powerful antidote to the toxic pressures that stress places upon our health, well-being, relationships and productivity.
How so? How does a “modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance” factor into our personal stress equation? Look closely at what is happening in the example of road rage which is familiar to every commuter. Someone cuts you off at high speed and your body reacts with a surge of automatic hormonal and neural responses that leave you emotionally aroused. What happens next determines whether your emotional arousal will begin to dissipate or will escalate into full blown road rage.
If you respond to this arousal by convincing yourself that the person who cut you off has committed a serious offense which needs to be immediately punished by you, your stress will continue to escalate and you will go after him and an episode of road rage begins. If you respond to this arousal by persuading yourself that you don’t really know all the circumstances surrounding the other party’s driving behavior you will begin to calm down and start to let go of the episode.In the first case you are absolutely certain of your own omniscience. You believe to a certainty that the other driver is simply a total jerk and there are no possible mitigating circumstances. In the latter instance, you consider other possibilities: that he may be driving at this speed because of some medical emergency, or fear about being late for work and losing his job, or some other reasons you cannot imagine. Yes … there is also the distinct possibility that he is just a selfish, dangerous and inconsiderate jerk. The key thing is you know that you do not know for sure. You have a modest opinion of your own capacity to know what is motivating someone else.
This is the magic balm of humility. By appreciating the magnitude of everything you don’t know and retaining some healthy skepticism about everything you believe to be true you calm yourself down. You avoid that dangerous sense of righteous indignation which can lead you to places you don’t want to go. It can be life-threatening to hold erroneous beliefs about other drivers when you are piloting 4000 pounds of metal at 70 miles per hour. Humility helps mitigate this risk and reminds us to take a deep breath whenever we find ourselves so focused on the alleged offenses of others that we are completely blind to our own. Humility can help us get to work safely.