My friend Alex is a great listener and an inquisitive ally. He sincerely listens to all kinds of people, to all kinds of stories, and to all kinds of opinions. At his core, Alex is an empathetic scientist, asking questions to understand, free from prejudice. He’s also a real scientist, currently earning a PhD in microbiology at BYU.
More than once I’ve told Alex about sexism I’ve experienced, and even though he can’t completely relate, he acknowledges the hurt I have felt. Alex doesn’t accept my experience as half true with caveats and disclaimers. He doesn’t paint over unpleasantness or dismiss it. He doesn’t superficially validate me and then dole out advice. He’s not impatiently waiting to launch into his own lived experiences, or competing to get the last word. Alex just sits with the situation and reflects with me. He doesn’t pretend he knows better or knows how I feel, he shows humility.
In a 2004 paper, Humility as a Source of Competitive Advantage, Dusya Vera and Antonio Rodriguez-Lopez described common misconceptions about humility. Though humility is often associated with timidity and seen as a weakness, the authors argue the opposite, “that humility offers strategic value for firms by furnishing organizational members with a realistic perspective of themselves, the firm, and the environment.”
This “realistic perspective” allows us to see other people and ourselves with more clarity, and makes us more accepting of different people and new ideas. Humility allows us to see and understand the experiences or environment of others, even when we haven’t personally experienced that. It can help us to overcome the bias that “all we see is all there is”. Humility and meekness are essential as we grapple with the local and global impacts of racism and sexism, because it offers each of us a window into someone else’s life.
Just last week Yoshiro Mori, former Japanese prime minister, resigned as the head of the 2020 Olympic organizing committee after making sexist remarks about senior female Olympic officials. His lack of humility undermined his own contributions and led to his controversial departure. Without meekness we won’t be able to solve or even recognize the problems of inequality, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, etc., we may even become part of the problem. Meekness and humility allow us to accept diversity, not as a threat, but as an opportunity.
When humility encompasses sincerity, open-mindedness, and self-awareness we can more easily see past disagreeable positions and personalities. Eleanor Roosevelt described how to live with humility and meekness: “A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all knowing and therefore all of us need both love and charity.”
Thanks to my friend and neighbor Alex, for being a great listener, an inquisitive ally, and an empathetic scientist. Let’s all keep experimenting with meekness and humility.
Shannon Ellsworth is the Community Development Manager at Sunrise Engineering, serving clients with land use policy and environmental solutions. Shannon serves on the Provo City Council, on the Governor’s Rural Partnership Board, and on multiple nonprofit boards. She earned an MBA from BYU and a bachelor’s degree from Utah State University.