Humble – the curse of a narcissistic age

I have a HUGE beef with the word, ‘humble,’ and the phenomenon known as, ‘humble-bragging,’ or deploying false modesty in order to boast. It’s ridiculous in our narcissistic age and we ought to be more honest.

I’ll explain my beef with a couple of definitions:

Humble: Having or showing a modest or low estimate of one’s importance.

Humbled: To cause (someone) to feel less important or proud – I was humbled by the experience.

I’ve had this beef for a few years, and the other night when David Cameron made some reference to being humbled by something or other, I started to grind my teeth. I have no idea what it was he said because I was stuck on the word, humble.

Recently, journalist Peter Greste made a point of telling the world he was humbled by all the support he received upon his release from an Egyptian prison. He was riding high on his new freedom and his ego at that point would have been the size of China. He was glowing.

What he should have said, which would have been honest, was, I’m grateful. He could have got a bit superlative about it and said, I’m truly grateful. Adding, all the support I’m receiving is overwhelming.

If someone slaps you on the back and says well done mate, (for getting that distinction, that award, that prize, that bit of gold or platinum), you feel proud, you feel important.

If an author receives some praising feedback, she is not humbled by it. She’s ecstatic. She’s bouncing off the walls. She’s doing somersaults and her grin is so broad and fixed it makes her jaw ache. She wants to tell the whole world about it. Hey look! This person over here really likes my stuff! She’s triumphant. All those years of hard work and shaky confidence finally paying off. Above all she is dignified. She holds her head a little higher, thrusts out her chest and enjoys the momentary glory, for that is all it is. And perhaps in her low moments, when she feels as important as a speck of dust, she might, for a boost, re-read that bit of praise and smile.

For the creative life is one of crushing humility. In private, in solitude, every day living with a gnawing uncertainty, not knowing if your abilities can ever measure up to the demands of your imagination, and if your artwork will ever find a place in the world at large. Nothing is more humbling than that.

I am disgusted with a world that demands of its writers false humility. We shouldn’t have to go about pretending to be humble when we’re rightly puffed up. It’s pretentious. We all have egos. Even a saint has a ego.

Narcissism is self-love, or an unhealthy preoccupation with ourselves and a consequent disregard for others. In a narcissistic age it is perverse to pretend to repel, denounce, and fear that which we really covet. Ourselves. It is a lie to deny the dominance of narcissism by censuring those who have every right to be proud for a moment, those who are likely to be the least narcissistic of all of us, those who have every right to bask in honest praise and allow in the dignity it bestows.

And as artists, we should never stoop to humblebragging. We should avoid covertly promoting ourselves and our work by pretending to be humbled by praise.

Just say I’m grateful. Or I’m rapt.

Isobel Blackthorn is the author of the novel Asylum. Her forthcoming novel, The Drago Tree, will be released by Odyssey Books in September 2015.

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