Muhammad Ali (center) on the podium after winning the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. (Polish Press Agency (PAP) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” (Christian Scriptures). Moses was “meek beyond all men” (Hebrew Scriptures). What is it about being meek that would enable someone to “inherit,” and, by implication, rule the earth. What was meek about Moses, who courageously led the Hebrews to the Promised Land? My Webster lists “meek” as a synonym for “humble.” I grew up identifying the word humility with meekness. 

What I took away from my childhood religious classes in the ’40s and ’50s was that our models for humility were self-effacing saints, such as the Little Flower (St. Therese of Lisieux, a 19th-century cloistered nun) who never left the convent once she was admitted and was renowned for her very simple acts of love — for example, washing dishes and mopping floors. I was impressed with these stories, but they didn’t serve me well as I advanced into adulthood. I was more likely to identify with Bob Hope’s words about humility: “I feel very humble. But I think I have the strength to overcome it.” 

In taking up the subject of humility, I run the risk of writing about a subject that my readers don’t have much interest in. After all, if someone hadn’t been inculcated with the pious beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church, why would that person have even a mild interest in this subject? My goal is to persuade readers that humility might be an important subject to think about.

Given my former pietistic — and therefore skeptical — view of humility, I was jolted by what I happened to hear on the radio recently, perhaps in a TED Talk, from the mouth of a high-ranking military officer. He said humility is an essential quality of an effective military leader. In doing research, I discovered that humility is highly valued in leaders in other fields, for example, business, maybe even politics. So extrapolating from this data, I want to apply this concept to others and myself personally, whether leaders or not. Besides, what do I know about the military? I’ve never served in the armed forces. As for business leader, I’ve been a social worker all my life.

 Over the years, especially since I have taken up writing, I have prided, not humbled myself in becoming more and more of a wordsmith. It drives my wife nuts when I whip out my iPhone Webster and interrupt our conversation to look up a word. I especially enjoy finding the etymology of a word. The word “humility” is from the Latin, humus, “of the earth.” I decided “of the earth” should my stepping off point in understanding humility. I don’t think I’m stretching it to substitute the word “ground” for earth and then from ground to the adjective “grounded.” We use “grounded” in a lot of different ways: the parental, “you are grounded;” the physical, “the airplane was “grounded” during the storm; or the personal, he/she is a “grounded person.” I am suggesting a grounded person is a humble person.

I didn’t feel very grounded with a solid sense of myself in my childhood. I have written about how vulnerable I was to shame — a quality quite different from humility — beginning at age 3 or 4 when I realized I wasn’t the only “Joey” in the world. At Hans Christian Andersen Playground in my neighborhood, another boy answered to that name when someone called out “Joey.” At the same time, I felt the shame of displacement when my mother had two more children within 2½ years of my birth. Feelings of shame continued at the hands of my dad who, intentionally or not, used shame as a child-rearing method especially with me and my two brothers. Expressions coming from my cultural background that reinforce how humility was seen were: “Don’t get a big head,” “Too big for your britches,” and “Who do you think you are?” You could say these expressions, especially when directed by a parent to a child, are “humbling” and give a bad name to humility. I was easily “knocked off my feet,” not very grounded.

 The word, “grounded” is pregnant with meaning and useful for this discussion. We consider a “grounded person” as strong, stable, confident, and, I might add, humble in the best sense of the word. I associate the term “grounded person” with someone who doesn’t depend on — or need — the opinion of others to feel good about him/herself. 

But it also refers to one who is humble enough to take in negative feedback from others. Such a person is non-reactive. This is true in all kinds of relationships, but especially so — based both on my experiences as a couples therapist and in my own marriage — in intimate relationships. You have to be grounded, non-reactive, to take in and evaluate, not “stonewall” or over-react to, your partner’s complaints about you. The capacity to do this makes for a strong relationship, not so vulnerable to the winds of conflict.

I think the common expressions “a leap of faith,” “a leap into the dark,” and “nothing ventured nothing gained” bespeak an essential aspect of the well-lived life. As you reflect on your important life decisions, how often have you leaped or ventured into something very important to you, sometimes resulting in a good outcome like marrying the right person or a bad one, ending up with a lousy job? What’s important is that you make the decision from a grounded, humble position. It may feel like a “leap of faith” right now to view these decisions as coming from humility, but at least consider the idea.

 “Work Hard, Stay Humble.” This is one of the sayings posted on the walls of the gym of my personal trainer, Giulia Isetti. Because of our close relationship, readers have called her my “muse” or my “soulmate”: We connect not only about physical conditioning but also about things intellectual, psychological, and philosophical. 

When I asked her what she considers is the definition of “humility,” she quoted C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), the writer of such classics as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” Not far from “Work Hard, Stay Humble” on her wall is a picture of Muhammad Ali saying: “If my mind can conceive of, and my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it.” It got me wondering if Muhammad Ali — of “I’m the greatest” fame — could be seen as humble. My curiosity and skepticism grew in my mind, and I Googled, “Muhammad Ali Humility.” What came up was an entry from the blog of Mohamed Sacribey, former ambassador to the United Nations from Bosnia and Herzegovina in the ’90s. He wrote about Ali:

“Humility defined ‘The Greatest’ as much as any accomplishment or acclaim. In all the tributes paid to Muhammad Ali, all upon his passing, the most often shared by most of us who knew him, even had the smallest bit of him for a moment, is ‘lover of human beings.'” 

An image of Ali — later in life, long after his boxing days — cemented in my memory is from the video of him, hands shaking with the tremors of Parkinson’s disease, as he carries the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. In truth, “the greatest” had humility. How ironic it is that the “the greatest” thought less about himself and more about others.

Joe McDonald is a longtime Oak Park resident and a retired couples therapist.

Join the discussion on social media!

2 replies on “Muhammad Ali and humility”