This post is a kind of musing if you will.
I have written in previous posts that I’ve returned to graduate school. I’m pursuing a medical Master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The Western and Eastern tracks are symmetrical in their instruction. Currently, I’m immersed in Western medicine classes, and I’m well beyond saturated in terms of information overload. I no longer care what hematopoiesis is and why it matters. I dream about anatomy almost every night. I woke up last night dreaming about the greater trochanter and linea aspera of the femur. I have had nightmares that the quadriceps group formed a gang with the adductors in order to hunt me. The vastus lateralis had a voice that was reminiscent of Patrick Stewart’s. The metatarsals of the foot had teeth and tried to bite me. They were taking orders from the sartorius muscle who had transformed into Russell Crowe. I will not attempt to interpret this…
In the midst of all this, I have been observing the culture of my school environment. My college is almost a duplicate of a medical school in China and is considered the sister school to this medical school. All of the TCM instructors are physicians from China, and the Western medicine instructors are American physicians. It is a very interesting duality–bouncing back and forth between the traditions. I anticipated some of the differences–language barriers, socio-cultural differences, and different teaching styles. Something else was very different as well and completely unexpected. The Chinese instructors are extremely humble and socially gracious while the American physicians are, well, not.
I’ve met numerous teachers from China since January, and their humility is almost immediately evident. They do not engage in self-promotion, bragging, telling war stories wherein they feature as the star physician who saved the day, general peacocking, active or passive namedropping, competition, or one-upmanship. I found their subtle social footprint disconcerting. I am so accustomed to blatant displays of self-promotion in people with any sort of academic and/or professional achievement that I didn’t know how to handle a complete lack of it.
There’s a reason people think this (and I’m a grad student!)
Then, I found a list of biographies featuring the professional achievements and training of the school’s instructors. I was gobsmacked. Our Chinese instructors were overqualified to teach us. Our Asian physician teachers are scholars and masters of their respective specialties, but you would never know. They do not behave as if they are unique or special. They do not make us, the students, feel stupid or incompetent. They don’t dress or speak in an intimidating manner or exploit our anxiety in order to make themselves feel better or bigger. I have yet to be called an idiot. I was called an idiot frequently by my teachers in France, and my American university experiences were peppered with professorial egotistical hit and runs that left me marinating in self-doubt and self-recrimination.
My Western instructors are brilliant, but I can’t really describe them as…humble The game is afoot when I spend time in my Western medicine classes. I know this game all too well, and I know how to jump through those hoops. Fostering competition is how we are taught in the West. It begins in preschool and continues throughout our mandatory schooling. It motivates people to try harder. Shame is a ruthless instructor. Be the best, but the idea of “best” is put in the context of judging other people and their best. Who knows more? Who runs the fastest? Who answers the questions with the most speed and precision? Who has the most expertise? Who writes the best? Memorizes the best? Retains the most and recalls the fastest? Who does what the best? Suddenly, your focus is on everyone else rather than learning, and your ego wakes up and readies for a fight. Your peers become enemies, and your teachers are the gatekeepers. Someone has to come out on top. Who’s it going to be? Who is going to prove to be the best? The superlative? Who’s the winner? Your identity is at stake here! Not only is your cohort objectified but you are as well.
The difference between the two attitudes, if you will, has been stunning. I have found myself very attracted to the East Asian attitude which I would ascribe to the virtue of humility. The idea that the more you have studied the more you view yourself as knowing less rather than possessing expertise feels freeing to me. I described this to a close friend whose family is from Asia, and he emphasized the virtue of humility in scholars. In Asia, one of the primary virtues of a scholar is humility. One never attempts to flaunt expertise or engage in self-promotion even after years of study. This idea is highlighted in Taoism: “The more you learn, the more you realize there’s still so much more to learn. This tends to make you humble. Arrogance and egotism come from ignorance – knowing a little bit and assuming you know a lot.” (What is Tao)
I decided to do an experiment in order to check the status of my ego. Just where was I in this developmental process? Could I participate in a conversation wherein people were discussing a subject that I knew something about and say nothing? Could I merely listen for the purpose of listening? You know what? It’s hard, and being in an academic environment affords me countless opportunities to practice this. I know a little bit about a lot of things, but what exactly am I an expert on? Truly an expert? I had to think about it. I also had to assess the reasons why I was contributing. Was it for the maintenance of my own ego? Suddenly, I was weighing my words and thoughts. Did anyone need to hear that story? Did I really need to say that? Deliberately putting myself in the position of an apprentice while acknowledging that what I was about to say probably wasn’t nearly as important as I thought has been…interesting.
The side effects?
Well, you see where your ego is wounded very quickly and where you are looking to compensate for that through social behaviors like preening, peacocking, namedropping both passive and active, bragging, and recounting narratives that are merely attempts to show off one’s awesomeness or make one feel legitimate. What is passive and active namedropping you might ask?
Active namedropping looks like this:
“I just picked up Paramour at the airport and their youth minister! Now we’re all friends on Facebook, and I might get together with the drummer…”
This actually happened to me once. You know it’s ego-driven if you respond with, “Who’s Paramour?” and you’re suddenly on the receiving end of an apocalyptic eye-roll and some kind of insult indicating that you don’t get out much.
Passive namedropping looks like this:
“I was IMing this musician the other day that I’ve gotten to know online. They are fairly well-known…but…uh…you wouldn’t know who they are. Anyway…”
My family does this a lot. You know it’s ego-driven because of the superfluous information describing the musician’s popularity and the additional ad hominem-esque attack. The only information that would have been truly necessary was “I was talking to an acquaintance and…”
It is extremely easy and tempting to engage in self-promotion. Our culture almost demands it. Western culture does not readily value humility. It isn’t a virtue. It’s seen as almost being milquetoast or meek. Our general culture seems to offer up the Teddy Roosevelt personality bursting forth with over-the-top self-reliance and inspirational, epic stories that can be tapped on Youtube via a TED talk. We want to be moved, spoken into constantly, and perpetually validated as a wider culture. It isn’t necessarily wrong. Everyone needs an ‘atta boy’ or ‘atta girl’ from time to time.
Is cultivating an other-oriented mindset milquetoast? Is pursuing the virtue of humility worth it when humility is defined as “a disposition toward accurate self-assessment, other-orientedness, and the regulation of self-centered emotions”? (Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health) Believing in your own competence and ability to complete a task with excellence is humility. Rubbing that belief in everyone else’s face is arrogance. Believing that you are capable today but can always become more capable is humility. Believing that you are intelligent but are often surrounded by more intelligent people and can, thusly, always learn from others is humility. Being able to rely on yourself for validation is a very high form of humility because so often we look to others to tell us that we’re awesome, smart, capable, etc. Believing that you no longer need external validation but instead need external constructive criticism and pointers to become better is a huge step towards attaining the virtue of humility. Frankly, it’s a bit scary, and yet I witness it almost daily. I find it to be so attractive and valuable. It is the direction I need to take in terms of personal development.
I study for hours every day, and I truly feel like I now know less than I did when I started. It is extremely uncomfortable, but, at the same time, I have discovered that there is a lot of emotional and intellectual energy invested in maintaining an ego that must “front” all the time. If I no longer need to maintain or support my ego in this way, then I can divert more energy into other more worthwhile efforts like healing, learning, practicing, relating, loving, and serving others in ways that will actually make a meaningful difference.
I have not found this practice to be easy. I have found it to be challenging. I have found it to be vastly uncomfortable, but I have also found that I like myself more when I am not attempting to assert my impoverished experience of myself onto other people in hopes that they will complete it for me. When I let it go and focus on simply being present to the moment in which I am occupying, it suddenly becomes easier.
Wherever I am, I am just trying to be there.
Practicing humility. See what you think.