An ancient Zen master used a saying when he taught his student monks about modesty: “It is hard to live long with a great name.” I’ve tried numerous times to find out the name of that Zen master. I’ve never seen a definitive clue. Evidently, the teacher followed his own advice. Regarding the virtue of modesty, many people in East Asia believed that avoiding fame, perfecting integrity, and stressing modesty were core values for a joyful, contented life; with the accent being placed on “contented”. In this case, “contented” does not mean settling for mediocrity. “Contented” means grateful and pleased with one’s state of being.
Modesty should not to be mistaken for false modesty or humble bragging. In many ways, false modesty is a great hindrance to integrity and contentment in life. In the outward sense, false modesty affects how a person presents her/himself. It implies the lack of discretion, simple elegance, natural beauty, and inner wisdom. It further implies dishonesty and egoism. The ancient wisdom traditions teach that boastfulness, be it about one’s own supposed modesty or about one’s alleged greatness, violates social norms. The need for boasting is eclipsed by honest competency; that is your works should speak for themselves.
It is noteworthy that there existed the Ancient Roman custom of having a slave whisper the phrase, “Remember, you are mortal” to a victorious general. The phrase was continuously repeated as the Legions paraded during the procession through the streets towards the Temple of the god Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, to offer sacrifice at the temple following conquest and victory. This is so profound that many of the later great leaders of nations and armies refered to this advice as they ascended to power. They took this as a caution against becoming tyrants.
“Although modesty is natural to man, it is not natural to children. Modesty only begins with the knowledge of evil.”–Jean-Jacques Rousseau
We are reminded that along side of acceptance, tolerance, generosity, and kindness that modesty is an attribute that broadens character and permits more genuine freedom in living. In considering modesty as virtuous, we must be careful not to mistake modesty for servility or self-deprication. Another important reminder is that it is wise to maintain the balance between modesty and pride. One might say that such a balance is equal to healthy self-esteem. Modesty should not be based upon shame. Genuine modesty shows that we are all members of the human race.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes graphic designer, marketer, mystic, philosopher, and poet, Mokokoma Mokhonoana. “You cannot be truly humble, unless you truly believe that life can and will go on without you.”