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Thursday, July 19, 2012

"Humilitas" (John Dickson)

TITLE: Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership
AUTHOR: John Dickson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011, (208 pages).

Whenever I read a book on humility, I wonder how qualified the author is. It is a strange paradox. If humility is such an illusive thing where the humble refuse to acknowledge one is humble, can anyone who is not humble ever write about humility? This dilemma is exactly what John Dickson felt right at the beginning of the book. Whether one admits or denies, it is hard to capture the essence of humility. So Dickson takes the approach of learning from history, and to lean on past wisdom and traditions. A historian by profession, Dickson tries to unpack two things: the aesthetic and the practical nature of humility. The key thesis of the book is that "the most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility." He defines humility as follows:

"Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, you could say the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others." (24)

In other words, humility comprises three elements: it presupposes the dignity of others; it is a choice; and it is self-deprecation for the sake of others. He then proposes ten reasons in which humility is important. Firstly, humility is the mark of authentic leadership. While ability and conferred authority are also marks, it is the practice of persuasion and example that truly enable humility to shine as leadership traits. Secondly, humility is not about people high up or way down somewhere, but is of common sense heritage.  It holds together a keen awareness of one's limitations as well as one's inherent worth. Thirdly, humility is beautiful, not something to be worn, but something to be appreciated, cherished, admired, and be transformed. Fourthly, not every culture sees humility the same way. During the Roman and Greek era, it is noble to seek good honour, where modesty is preferred over humiliation. Fifth, our modern understanding and widespread appreciation of humility begins at the Cross of Jesus, of how Jesus becomes servant and model of true humility. Six, there is a practical benefit of humility. It slows pride, builds self-esteem and positions one to be ready for growth. Seven, humility can be persuasive through influence and character. Eight, humility is inspiring. Nine, humility is better than tolerance. In fact, far better than tolerance or reactions against intolerance is an intentional work toward harmony. Finally, the author presents six steps to grow in humility.

  1. Allowing us to be shaped by what we love, believing that our actions shape our thoughts.
  2. Reflecting on the lives of humble people, to learn from them.
  3. Conducting thought experiments to put ourselves on a lower rung of society or an underprivileged position
  4. Acting humbly makes us learn from our own actions
  5. Inviting criticism
  6. Forgetting about ourselves trying to be humble
My Thoughts

This is a very unique book that represents not only impressive scholarship and critical thinking, but also self-deprecating humility in three ways. First, the author acknowledges and learns openly from the history, tradition, and various faith persuasions. Second, the author writes introspectively, always aware of the presence of pride even as he writes. Third, he applies his thesis cautiously with very practical steps for modern readers wanting a how-to perspective. In fact, Dickson readily admits he is not humble, and that his steps may not apply to all. The tone is inviting rather than intimidating. What I appreciate is that whenever Dickson writes on topics away from his field of expertise, he is ready to admit he is not the expert, and he proves that with examples and stories of people he respects. This book brings hope to those of us feeling lost about how to go about being humble. His six thoughts above about preparing one toward humble living is worth remembering. I like the way he ends with CS Lewis's thoughts about humility.

"If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed." (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, London: Collins, reprint 1986, 112)

Provocative but brilliant.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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