Covid-19: A Humble Makeover

May 11, 2020 11:15 AM

Tangney notes that psychologists haven’t yet developed interventions to enhance humility per se. However, she notes that multiple stakeholders can play a role in modeling and promoting this virtue.

dystopian reality, coronavirus pandemic, common humility, features of humilityBe it parents, teachers, healthcare workers or leaders, we may all reframe our choices from a humanistic as opposed to an individualistic lens.

By Aruna Sankaranarayanan

COVID-19: Global warming, fake news, terrorist attacks, school shootings, floods, droughts, sequencing of the human genome, the Internet of Things. None of these has upended our world like the infinitesimal coronavirus. Ultimately, it wasn’t an omnipotent leader, a global organization, a behemoth corporation, a nuclear-armed nation or an alien invasion that pressed the brakes on frenzied, frenetic human activity. A mere virus has humbled international leaders, policy-makers, the scientific establishment, think-tanks, forecasters and every one of us. In our quest to get bigger, better and fitter, nature has shattered human hubris.

Going down the road, scientists will invariably find a vaccine or a cure to halt the spread of the dreaded virus. But even if the virus is thus contained, will we revert to our former ways of living primarily on autopilot and supporting, both overtly and tacitly, a world-order defined by corporate, consumerist metrics that pays scant heed to the health of our planet and our own well-being? Besides the death toll, Covid-19 has uncovered a Pandora’s box of problems for humanity to contend with. From gaping lacunae in healthcare systems of rich and poor nations to a plethora of economic woes, at individual and collective levels, to inequalities beyond the digital divide, to the noxious fumes of our daily commutes, to petty politicking and growing parochialism, we are indeed a broken planet. For too long have we blinded ourselves to the suffering of fellow brethren; the longer we ignore our carbon footprints, the harder they will be to erase.

The time for reckoning is now. For us to take stock of our lifestyles and lives. To review our goals, both personal and societal, to re-purpose our days acknowledging our frailties, to discriminate between what is essential and mere frippery. Covid-19 has de-centered practically every pillar of modernity be it economic, social, political, educational or scientific. We now have to navigate a nebulous future and make tough choices that pierce the very essence of our humaneness. Do we prioritize saving lives or livelihoods? Unfortunately, this question tears at the heart of the most vulnerable, the sickest and the poorest.

As we watch a dystopian reality unfold before us, the one trait that we will hold us in good stead, both as individuals and as a society, is humility. Covid-19 has compelled us to confront our limitations as a species. Whether we accept our fallibilities and re-engage with the world and one another with greater humility, can mean the difference between flourishing and floundering. As individuals, we need to suppress the me-first instinct that has been reinforced by cultural mores that favour competition over collaboration. As societies, we need to stop viewing groups of people as ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and emphasize the common humanity that resides in everyone. As nations, we need to stop converting borders into chasms that restrain the flow of people, knowledge and best practices. As a species, we need to respect the ecology that has nourished us if we want to continue to thrive in the only home we know.

If we make a concerted and collaborative effort to cultivate humility in ourselves and our children, we are more likely to avert the current and forthcoming crises that await us if we don’t mend our ways. Humility, by virtue of being all-encompassing, can help us re-orient our lives simultaneously on myriad fronts. According to positive psychology pioneers, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, the essence of humility “involves a non-defensive willingness to see the self accurately.” They argue that humble people are less likely to “distort information in order to defend, repair, or verify their own image.”

Even in the scientific enterprise, where objectivity holds sway, personal egos often drive scholars to suppress data or deny findings that refute their original hypotheses. Instead of individual scientists vying with one another, we need to foster a synergistic culture where furthering our collective understanding is the goal that everyone pursues, irrespective of affiliations and other trappings that marked our “success” in a pre-Covid-19 world.

According to psychologist, June Price Tangney, humility is a “multifaceted construct” with the following elements. It entails an “accurate assessment” of one’s skills and abilities, a willingness to accept and correct our errors and lapses and a receptivity to novel ideas and contradictory points-of-view. Humility also predisposes us to view our talents and achievements “in perspective” while maintaining a “relatively low self-focus” that doesn’t put individuals at the centre of their personal universes. Lastly, being humble makes us more appreciative of people and the world, including our environment.

These features of humility make it an ideal candidate for tackling the manifold issues engendered by Covid-19. As we brace ourselves for a “new normal,” we also have to deal with a cocktail of negative emotions that will simmer in each one of us. From the agony of sudden job losses to disorientation as familiar routines are jolted to uncertainty over a future none can envision frustration over botched plans, mental health issues are likely to skyrocket. Tangney notes that many psychological problems are linked with an “excessive self-focus.” Besides providing us with more accurate appraisals of ourselves, humility also mitigates our preoccupation with ourselves while motivating us to develop “an outwardly directed orientation toward the world.”

Tangney notes that psychologists haven’t yet developed interventions to enhance humility per se. However, she notes that multiple stakeholders can play a role in modeling and promoting this virtue. Be it parents, teachers, healthcare workers or leaders, we may all reframe our choices from a humanistic as opposed to an individualistic lens. Whether we are also able to redefine what a ‘successful’ life entails will be a key determinant of this endeavor. Given that the pandemic has catapulted our sense of control, for matters superficial and significant, this is an opportune moment for us to rethink, reframe and re-orient our goals and means to achieve them.

(The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Views expressed are the author’s own.)

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