Confidence and Humility
Confidence is not a static quality, nor is it devoid of humility. Oftentimes confidence and humility are presented as if they exist on the opposite side of a spectrum instead of complementing one another. We often mistake humility for a weakness or incompetence, and we tend to conflate arrogance and confidence. However, if there is one thing I have learned in life, it is that the more you know — whether that is about a certain topic or even about yourself, the more you uncover the finiteness and flimsiness of your knowledge. You have probably already noticed that the lesser people know about something, the more overconfident they sound. And if heaven forbid their overconfidence is paired with articulacy, charisma, and some credentials, they can maneuver any audience like clay in a potter’s hands. At times these are the ones who ended up becoming exploitative cult leaders who amass massive following. In fact, psychologists have a term for this malady, it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Because of the nature of the course, this semester my students and I have been talking a lot about humility. Not long ago, I asked my students what comes to their minds when they think of the word humility. The common words that emerged from our conversations were, “openness,” “curiosity,” and “questions.” I completely agreed. Encompassed within humility is a healthy dose of ambiguity and uncertainty. Humility seeks different viewpoints and critically examines its beliefs. Growing up, one of the places where I lacked humility was regarding the religion in which I grew up. I don’t remember ever being taught to learn about or even be open to listen to others’ religions. Instead from a very young age I was taught to use every opportunity to proselytize what my family knew to be infallibly true. Like any sensible human being, of course at some point I had to humble myself and ask why I believed what I believed — Would I have had the same belief if I were born into a different family? Moreover, can I confidently assert my truth without ever exposing myself to what others consider to be their truths? I remember dancing with joy the first time I heard John Stuart Mill’s famous quote, “A person who knows only their side of the case knows little of that.” It eloquently captured the essence of what I was thinking at the moment.
I wish I could tell you that this period of questioning had been a pleasant and stress-free experience. It wasn’t. It was unsettling and unraveling to say the least. To start with, some people in my life viewed it as an act of rebellion instead of a genuine quest. This feeling of being misunderstood and unsupported exacerbated the emotional turmoil I was already experiencing.
Sometime later however the turmoil gave way to something unexpected, something better — a sense of curiosity that I can only describe as insatiable and feelings of awe. This is what I meant by humility involves a certain degree of not knowing. That not knowing inevitably gives rise to openness which in turns can breed tolerance and expansiveness. But I also wouldn’t want to underestimate the cost that comes with entertaining uncertainty.
I have mentioned in my previous blog that someone I know very closely is battling stage 4 sarcoma right now. A couple months ago I flew out to Thailand to see him where he was receiving his treatment. In one of our many conversations, he said to me, “My life would have been so much bearable if I had a steadfast faith or if my faith never wavered.” He turned to me and said, “You and I have been championing the value of examining and questioning our beliefs for quite some time now. But tell me this: What exactly have we gained?” I deeply empathized with him. Even though I have never had to come so close to death, who knows what type of person I would have become if I were in his shoes, but I too have tasted the agony that comes when the ground on which you built your entire life comes undone. However, I don’t know if I would want to give up the trade-offs. It is true that with giving up “the flimsy fantasy of certainty” as Rasheed put it, I had had so many stormy nights, but it had also led me to approach people and the world with such curiosity, humility, and openness. This is the very reason why I love educating myself and others with such passion. This is also the reason why I always tell my students to see me not so much as an all-knowing professor but rather as a lifelong learner, as a fellow explorer.
Written by: Feven Seifu