Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #24 – Humility and Low Self-Esteem: What is the difference?

June 11th, 2018

I have thought about this distinction for years and have come up with different explanations. Recently I had a sort of epiphany:


Humility and low self-esteem—though not just low self-esteem, but self-esteem in general—are just different categories. Humility is ultimately a spiritual category and issues of self-esteem are more of a psychological one. Thus you can have a healthy self-esteem or low self-esteem and still be humble or proud in either case. I make this distinction based on how I define humility.


Of course, there is a standard definition of humility (“the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance”), but I seek here to define humility in a deeper way. I don’t want to just say what humility is, but to define it in a way that includes what makes one humble, a definition that I hope better explains the distinction between humility and low self-esteem.


I define humility as the willing acceptance of authority and the conscious renunciation of the enjoying spirit in the act of doing so. Before you shut the page, let me define what I mean by “authority”. I am not referring to submitting to a person because of the authority of their position, but surrendering to the authority of truth or knowledge, including the people who genuinely represent it. This willing acknowledgment of the acceptance of the rule of truth, and those that carry the mantle of truth, is the essence of humility and the fullest renunciation of the selfish or enjoying spirit.


I would like to make a further distinction between the two definitions to help in this discussion. The standard or psychological definition I will call micro-humility, not in the sense that it is trivial, just that the first definition that I described as psychological modesty is not as substantive as the spiritual modesty described in the second one. I call the second one macro-humility, meaning full-surrendered humility at the very core of the soul.


One reason I felt inspired to look at this issue more deeply is my observance of Vaiṣṇava leadership where sometimes we see a person possessing unbecoming controlling propensities and deep devotion for Krishna at the same time. I don’t think this is hypocrisy, or at least it doesn’t have to be. Most people have, to one degree or another, some dichotomy between their spiritual side and the vehicle by which it is expressed, between inspired or deep convictions and their incidental or non-deliberate nature. It’s natural. Yes, people can even do things that exhibit selfishness and control and be overly concerned with how they look or what people think, lacking apparently micro-humility, but when push comes to shove, when conscious decisions are to be made, fully acknowledge that there is an absolute truth. They surrender to the will of God represented by Śrī Guru and the Vaiṣṇavas demonstrating substantive macro-humility.


I can think of many pronounced examples of the dichotomy between the non-integral and essential qualities in a person’s character. One person in particular as an example comes to mind, my friend and god-brother, the late Tamal Krishna Goswami. To be in his presence sometimes could be overbearing because of his nature to control the environment around him, but still from the core of his being he was the humble servant of his spiritual master. When Śrīla Prabhupāda heard complaints of how his fervor and competitive nature had caused disturbance to the temples of North America, Śrīla Prabhupāda called him, immediately disbanded his successful preaching party and ordered him to go to China. It was not easy, but he acceded to that directive, recognizing a rule and authority much greater than his own, showing the macro or substantive humility at the core of his self.


And where you find legitimate macro-humility, when the passion of one’s day and service subsides, you are also likely to find reflections of micro-humility. Although Tamal Krishna Mahārāja always took control, he did not have a self-inflated conception of his self. I never saw or heard him express that he thought himself better than others and even one time remember where he lamented his nature, noting by name many god-brothers, even leaders, and wishing he could be like them in their apparent piety.


I think an important point to note here before we conclude is that like all subtle principles this one can also be misapplied or abused when not understood deeply. Of course, one can’t hide behind this dichotomy describing humility in this way to protect one’s ego or blindly judge others and give them a pass. Yes, too often people who are proud and controlling are not humble on any level, micro or macro.


We shouldn’t also discount genuine saints who by nature are inwardly surrendered souls and also outwardly genuinely humbler than a blade of grass. I think the main point here, however, is something different and is best summed up and expressed by an elderly Vaiṣṇava I met in Bengal. He advised me that there is not an absolute correlation between the inspired side of a Vaiṣṇava and his nature or more ordinary dealings, and that if we get stuck or evaluate one only on his or incidental qualities it will not only dampen one’s appreciation for genuine Vaiṣṇavas but make one prone to offense.


Now we can get back to our original dilemma. How can humility (a virtue) and low self-esteem (a character defect) look the same? When you define humility in its macro or more substantive definition—“the willing acceptance of authority and the conscious renunciation of the enjoying spirit in the act of doing so” —the issues of self-esteem are inconsequential.



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