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  • Writer's pictureAaron Hendon

The Gratitude Paradox: How to Live a Grateful Life in a F*cked Up World.

Updated: Apr 9

Part Four: The Paradox of Humility

Mindfulness: Starting at the sky in gratitude

There’s a Steven Wright joke that goes something like, “If 4 or 5 people all tell you about some flaw in your character, you might want to take a look because it’s unlikely they called a meeting.”

That sums up my relationship to being arrogant.

I remember the very first time I was told I was arrogant – I was probably 10 years old and was on a play date with a friend, Arthur DeMartini I believe, and he was pissed. I suspect he used a word other than arrogant, but the message was clear. I must have said something smug and snarky, and he let me know in no uncertain terms I was too smart for my own good and thought I knew everything.

Arthur was not the last person to tell me this. Unsurprisingly, my wife shares this assessment. My “confidence” in my “knowledge” is, often, pure hubris, and she can tell you, it makes things less fun for her.

Having been allowed to foster this condition for some 60 years made the thought of humility as one of the ingredients of gratitude somewhat difficult for me to grasp. My default arrogance, while I have certainly seen it be a deterrent and obstacle in being connected to others, has never seemed to be an issue in my experiencing gratitude. I’ve often had experiences of gratitude and I’ve often been an arrogant prick – they seemed unrelated to me.

But a trusted mentor suggested I look in that direction and, after confronting my initial, offhanded, arrogant rejection of the notion, I discovered something magical.

First, let’s define what we mean. For this conversation, humility is: a created view in which pride, confidence, and self-worth exist, without arrogance, hubris, or self-importance.

While C.S. Lewis is often attributed, it is Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life” who said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but think of yourself less.” I think this captures the space of it quite nicely.

How does thinking of ourselves less relate to gratitude then?

When we take away hubris, we take away the already existing answers and we open ourselves to wonder. When we authentically create what Socrates meant when he said “The only thing I know is that I know nothing” we not only temper self-importance but simultaneously open the door to humility.

Knowing nothing opens us to the vastness of what is possible to know. As we look around in that ever-expanding world we find ourselves naturally becoming less and less significant.

When we look out at the night sky, or stare at the horizon from the shore, self-importance doesn’t stand a chance.  

When we practice being present in these moments it’s virtually impossible to relate to ourselves as the center of anything. We are one piece of life, in the vastness of all that is.

This is the beginning of humility. Thinking now of gratitude we begin to see humility as a key ingredient.

David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, author of "Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer" suggests that recognizing the limits of our understanding opens us up to greater appreciation and thankfulness.

He says that humility and gratitude are the two sides of the same coin, and they both lead us to a deeper appreciation of the present moment.

Quieting myself in front of a star filled sky I feel this in my bones to be true.

Likewise, leading researcher on gratitude, Robert Emmons, author of “Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier" suggests a humble recognition of the gifts we receive from others and the world leads to an increase in grateful feelings.

Emmons lays it out like this: "Gratitude is born of humility…This recognition gives birth to acts marked by attention and responsibility. Ingratitude, on the other hand, is marked by hubris, which denies the gift, and this always leads to inattention, irresponsibility, and abuse."

When gratitude is approached from this direction, there is a whole new depth to the experience of being grateful.

Tying this back to Warren, and our definition of humility, Kristi Nelson, Executive Director of a Network for Grateful Living says humility is not about self-deprecation or undervaluing oneself; instead, it's about having a clear and realistic understanding of our place in the world.

This understanding involves recognizing that our achievements and good fortunes are not solely the result of our efforts but are also dependent on the support, kindness, and contributions of others, as well as on various external factors.

In this way humility allows us to see the interconnectedness of life and acknowledge that we are part of a larger web of existence. This realization fosters a sense of gratitude, as we begin to appreciate all how the world supports and sustains us.

By embracing humility, we open ourselves to the beauty and generosity of life, and we become more attuned to the gifts that each moment brings.

Humility becomes not a sign of weakness, or lack of confidence, but of strength and intelligence.

We don’t give up our power in surrendering to a humble posture, rather we gain strength when we acknowledge our small place in the universe.  As Lao Tzu says: “The sage puts himself last and becomes first.”

Like all good paradoxes, the resolution requires our engagement and defies being captured in language alone. In this way, we can discover humility as necessary and constitutive to experiencing gratitude in any moment.

It is both a pathway to and an essential element of, gratitude.

As a recovering arrogant prick myself, I’ve been fascinated by this new world of humility and I’m curious as to what you discover as you explore it.

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