Is Humility the New Vulnerability?


Recently, word came from the New York Times that what we want above all things—in a partner, in ourselves—is humility.

This may be an unavoidable product of our digital half-lives, where humility is rarely in evidence. As the web has grown, so, too, has the need to stand out, to make one’s name—an ambition that seems to require grandiosity, volume, an unwavering commitment to self-promotion. This was the Age of Bombast.

In response, the Age of Vulnerability has emerged in recent years, born of a culture coping with broken systems. Consider the college student begging for money for his insulin on GoFundMe, which is basically “be vulnerable in a compelling way or you literally die.” Consider the black mothers on television whose children have been killed by police, or members of the trans community facing an epidemic of violence, or children sentenced by a government to a cage. Real, transformative change only happens when they and their supporters share their stories in powerful ways—which forces them to exhibit vulnerability at exceptionally high levels.

Online, we perform, like so many bears juggling objects of increasing impossibility.

Whether those necessary battles have been won or not, the collective moves on, because we can only handle so much vulnerability, and threat, and despair—and because once we all saw how successful performative vulnerability was, it was applied more liberally, to less deserving causes: It became not a measure of last resort but a marketing strategy.

And so we turn to humility.

It’s meaningful that in craving humility, we crave something that is fundamentally alien to the online platforms where we now spend so much of our time. Online, we perform, like so many bears juggling objects of increasing impossibility: balls, then chainsaws, then other bears, on fire. In the digital public square, the characteristics that define humility—nuance, moderation, discretion—are impossible to discern in a maelstrom of invective and noise. Humility asks us to refrain: from trumpeting our fancy meal, our new partner, our beach vacation, all in language that underplays our satisfaction to a degree parallel to our actual satisfaction.

We can choose to be humbled by surrounding ourselves with things that are wonderful and grand.

Actual humility asks us to keep these pleasures ourselves. But if we do so, we pay a price, because we go unseen—and in this online world, ever encroaching on the real one, visibility is often the closest possible approximation to what we actually need: connection. There is no real way to act humbly online while also being noticed—which leaves us with one of two choices. We can perform #humility. It will look enough like the real thing to fool some people, and we can hashtag our #randomactofkindness until we collectively recoil and move on to the next thing. Or we can respond more fully to our sense that humility is the right way forward by seeking it out away from our screens.

We can choose to be humbled by surrounding ourselves with things that are wonderful and grand, whether that might be a forest or a painting or a dog. We can be kind. We can ask for forgiveness, or help. We can admit we feel like juggling bears. We can return an overdue apology, or library book. It won’t get the likes, but the likes weren’t worth that much, anyway.

Graphic by Coco Lashar.

Diana Ostrom

Diana Ostrom writes one novel every eight to 12 years and one newsletter every week (about Paris, travel, and more), which you can find here.

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