I recently read a fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review whose title awakened my curiosity: ” A New Way to Become More Open-Minded.” The author made reference to an interesting historical religious concept, that of intellectual humility. Apparently intellectual humility has been arousing so much new interest that the John Templeton Foundation funded a multi-million dollar research project about it a few years ago.
I enjoyed some of the concepts in the article: emphasizing creativity, flexibility, openness and curiosity, but I found myself bristling a bit at the semantics of the phrase itself. INTELLECTUAL HUMILITY.
I’d like to break it down and break it open:
Most definitions of humility reek of self-deprecation, leaning on an equally problematic definition of pride that is a synonym for arrogance. Even definitions of modesty and pride have diminishing aspects. I detect the stench of Christian hegemony, original sin and white patriarchy at work here. Humility and humiliation are not the same thing.
Moreover, why limit oneself only to the intellectual? What about the emotional, spiritual, and embodied dimensions of human experience? Otherwise it’s akin to working one single muscle group at the gym and ignoring the rest of the body.
Let’s reclaim a right-sized feeling of pride that includes that same creativity, flexibility, openness and curiosity, while also being balanced and grounded. Different cultures, countries, genders, spiritual traditions and communities offer qualitatively different theologies and ethical frameworks for the internal experience of self, other and community.
For example, Mussar is an ancient Jewish ethical, educational and spiritual movement from the 10th, 11th and 19th centuries that essentially offered practical instructions on how to live a meaningful and ethical life. There has been a revival of interest in Mussar among contemporary Jewish communities, especially given its resonance with mindfulness practice. Mussar practices include specific readings, resources, and practices for working with aspects of the self called middot, which translates as soul traits or soul qualities. By becoming aware of our habits, thoughts, and behaviors with this spiritual framework, people can work with soul traits like loving kindness, generosity, equanimity, trust, and yes: humility, to name a few.
Open your body, heart and spirit and your mind will follow. Or mix these up in any order that works best for you. Start wherever you are right now. Be curious.