As a survivor of a British Boarding schools, I find the concept of humility extremely difficult to grasp. With time and the repeated sheep dip of experience, I have learned that it is a most desirable quality but not something I can just summon into being at will.
I used to think that humility meant humiliation, something I learned at prep school, it was the standard currency of exchange and control. The experience of humiliation would suck me back into an internal swamp of shame, from where I would berate myself for not dealing well with others, not fighting back, even though they were either many, bigger or in 'authority'.
The Etymology of the word suggests origins in the Latin word 'humus' or linked with the earth. To me that speaks of having feet on the ground, the antithesis of airs and graces, pretentiousness, haughtiness or pride. My experience within the British private school establishment taught me how to be decorous, polite, modest, and agreeable. I learned how to lie, to dissemble, to manipulate, to transfer the hurt that was visited on me onto others. I learned how to cringe, how to grovel, how to pass the buck, to charm the authorities in order to survive psychological and physical pain and humiliation. I learned false humility, which justified me flying into rages at others for not respecting my efforts.
I confused humiliation with humility in my mind, when they are not at all the same thing. So what were the behaviours that I created in order to avoid humiliation, well there was ‘looking as if I knew what I was doing’ which meant generating a pretence of competence in order to protect me from those who might expose my very real ignorance. In fact I created a brittle shell of insecure friendliness and I kept moving through ideas, places and relationships at a brisk enough pace in order to be sure that nothing stuck to me and that I was never somewhere long enough to be truly seen.
Getting better from that meant stopping, it meant being seen, it meant being vulnerable. It meant giving up on trying to manage my image, to always look good or conform to what I thought others wanted from me. It’s only when I am held to account by somebody close or trusted that I become uncomfortable enough to give up my ‘looking good’ pretensions and I am freed up to become real.
The journey back to my authentic self involves choosing humility and connection over humiliation and separation. Because being who I am is not a default choice for me I suspect that I shall always need some ‘course correction’ to let go of the sick ego that helped me to survive those institutions and make it back to my genuine self.