I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Derek Parra last week, Olympic gold and silver medalist in speed skating from the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is author of the autobiography Reflections In The Ice. We met in an intimate setting at my friend’s house (she had bid at an auction for him to come and join our Book Club for the evening). I bound up to him with a huge smile on my face and called out his name in a friendly greeting. It is unusual meeting someone whose autobiography you have read, as you feel so familiar with them.
The evening with Derek was wonderful. I was so impressed by him. His story is of a simple upbringing with limited resources and support, but through sheer determination and hard work he achieved great successes. The thing that struck me most about him was his display of humility. Others in his position, having been the top in their field and earned two Olympic medals, might walk around with their chest puffed out and a sense of superiority, but not Derek. He was as interested in us as we were in him. He was thoughtful, humble, and unassuming. He was not too proud even to help grab clean-up supplies when my friend’s baby regurgitated! He was one of us.
My first memory of humility was at elementary school. A child had been asked to play a piece on the piano to the entire school. He must have been about 9 or 10. He sat at the piano the way I have now seen several talented pianist do (including our wedding musician Richard Souther), his long fingers arched and body bent low over the keys, as if being drawn into the instrument itself. The child’s playing was beautiful and displayed a rare talent. As the echoes of the melody ceased, we broke into rapturous applause. The boy’s response will stick with me – he stood, gave a slight, almost imperceptible, submissive bow of his head, and slunk along the edge of the crowd back to resume his space, crossed legged on the floor, as if nothing had just happened. I was surprised. After a performance like that I was expecting a grand bow and wide grin, and to lap up the limelight. But not he.
I have witnessed many other displays of humility and modesty in my life, be it friends who are incredibly intelligent and intellectual and went to the best schools in the country, but will never divulge this information, certainly not upon first meeting and unless specifically asked. Or someone receiving an award, who basks little in the glory themselves but attributes their success to all the others who helped them get there. Their humbleness always impresses me. I feel it demonstrates the idea that – I am just one of you, don’t put me on a pedestal, we are all talented in our own way. I find the opposite display of behavior – arrogance and boastfulness – such a turn-off.
However, I have been wondering, is a certain level of pride ok? We are told to be proud of our achievements or to have national pride. What does pride mean? It is a confusing term. Even the dictionary definition (from Merriam-Webster) of proud and pride point to their meanings as something both reasonable and something excessive.
Proud, adj – having or displaying excessive self-esteem, much pleased, having proper self-respect.
Pride, n – inordinate self-esteem, a reasonable or justifiable self-respect, delight or elation arising from some act, possession, or relationship.
This is confusing being defined as both reasonable and excessive. Pride has been described as one of the seven deadly (or cardinal) sins, the sin that leads to all other sins, and it also falls into the ninth (and most wicked) circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. That seems to show an overriding view by some that pride isn’t good.
Perhaps there are two different types of pride though? The self-righteous, self-worshipping pride (excessive) and then being proud of a job well done (reasonable). Feeling proud of your country and citizens and thankful for things your country has, such as rights and freedoms, natural beauty, etc. (reasonable) and thinking that your country is superior to all others (excessive). Celebrating your child’s success, be it academic, social, or in sports (reasonable) and telling your child that they are better than others (excessive). We all have talents, strengths, and gifts. Some people, like Derek, through their drive and determination, achieve great successes that are recognized globally. Others achieve incredible things every day, which might go unnoticed, perhaps due to their modesty and humility.
Which brings us back to humility – the quality or state of being humble. The dictionary describes
Humble, adj -not proud or haughty: not arrogant or assertive; reflecting, expressing, or offered in a spirit of deference or submission; ranking low in a hierarchy or scale.
So, is it good to be humble? While some of these traits would seem positive, such as not being haughty or arrogant, and offering deference to others; some, such as not being assertive or ranking low, might not seem as appealing.
I wonder if we can find a balance between humility and pride. I try to remind myself and those I love to find that equilibrium. I talk about it with my husband. We think about it at church. Let’s live in a world where we can celebrate our successes, but remember those who got us there; where we can be thankful for what we have, but not think we are better than others. As C.S. Lewis eloquently put it “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” I like that.