Hippocrates, the grandfather of medicine from ancient Greece, had his theory - that the four foundational ‘humours’ underlying human life - black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm - needed to be in balance for optimal wellbeing. But while the Hippocratic oath remained as Hippocrates’ decidedly ‘good idea’, blood-letting and other questionable practices informed by his humour theory did, first of all, do a lot of harm.
In pondering why the humour theory held sway for so long (and not paying any more attention to bile and phlegm), I did find solid ground for well-being hidden in the word humour. Literally. The original meaning of the prefix in humour - a meaning maintained from the ancient Proto-Indo-European language all the way into the latin (‘humus’) - is ground or earth. I found that the two English words which have inherited the prefix - ‘humour’ and ‘humiliation’ - share little related meaning between them today but have shared this root-meaning of groundedness for most of their word-lives.
In acknowledging this prefix that has humour and humiliation go hand in hand, my thoughts down under gravitated back up to Irish sensibilities. Our traditional sense of humour - an inextricably humble-and-humorous way - holds much of the original meaning of both humour and humility. It is a humour that laughs frivolously at ourselves and in good fun at each other, knowing that we are all fundamentally the same. Our humour knows, in some ancient way, that we might as well laugh now, because ultimately, we’re all bound for the earth again anyway.
With ‘humiliation’ having almost exclusively negative connotations today, the mental salvaging of it’s etymological 'ground' root brings up with it the usefulness of humiliation. If you are making genuine efforts to acquire, develop, or sustain any skill, you will repeatedly brush up against your limits, exposing yourself to opportunities for failure. There will be someone in every domain of life with the ability to put you to shame. In brushing up against these vulnerable moments, we will - just as the roots of humiliation hold it - be brought back to ground. In this respect, you don’t have to go looking for humiliation; it will track you down. But what about actually going looking for humiliation. Systematic humbling as a practice? Now there’s a radical idea. That would be a radical act.
So how to humiliate yourself well?
As Victor Frankl emphasises in finding meaning in extreme suffering (at the hands of the Nazis), the essential thing is attitude. Imagine the blow of humiliation has landed. You have been exposed at work, or brought down a few notches from your apparent pedestal at home; do you really want to beat yourself up some more? In threading the humiliating event-horizon, that barely perceivable gap between humiliating event and your reaction, high level performers provide an example of the right attitude.
Take high level performers in competitive sport. Competitors who wish to move up through the levels of their sport must humbly assess the grounds of their current game versus the demands of the testing ground above them. The daily grounding in their training gives them continuous feedback on where they stand. The ideal athlete's attitude is one which merely does the required work. It does not entertain surplus anxiety with regard to their current position.
Our relationship to the humiliating ground-fall is the key; do we collapse in shame or do we absorb the landing blow with allowance. The attitude adopted in the moment is often the difference between soul-crushing defeat and soul-raising persistence. Take the humiliation process too seriously and too personally, and you never bounce back. You never venture another step forward.
The Courage of Vulnerability
There is heart-breaking potential in every meaningful step forward. It takes real courage to be vulnerable and take purposeful steps - out of a comfort zone, toward where you want to be. Not taking steps forward is always an option. But the act of omission is also to make a decision. In the near-term, that option will seem like the easiest decision, but stagnate too long without risk and quality of life decays.
“Easy decisions, hard life. Hard decisions, easy life” - Jerzy Gregorek (former world weight-lifting champion)
The courageous venturing forward would do well to find encouragement wherever they can. As the French origins of ‘encouragement’ suggest, these adventurers should take heart. Take heart from all those voices that encourage, and take heart from your own heart reserves.
So humour me, readers in Ireland or anywhere else, taking a moment from the hum of life to finish this essay. Maintain your superpower sense of humour. Laugh out loud and self-deprecatingly at your mis-takes. Humble yourself in the original sense, grounding that ephemeral ego-mind in the bodily ground of exactly where you are. Bring yourself kindly back down to earth, and back to the drawing board.