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This one virtue leads to all the others

It is a rare person who can enjoy a degree of success and still stay grounded. Many will start displaying an ugly braggadocio even after making modest progress in life. So what can we say about someone who gains it all—professional acclaim, fame and renown, material comfort, strong familial relationships—but stays humble?

Many years ago, shortly after I had started writing this weekly column, I was invited to give a talk at a gathering of the Rotary Club of Nairobi. At the time, I was neither a seasoned columnist nor a regular speaker at public events, so I was understandably nervous. I sat onstage while the association’s standing proceedings were completed, awaiting my turn at the podium.

There was a brief break before I was to get started, and I noticed a gentleman gesturing politely to me from the edge of the stage. I went over, and he introduced himself. This is what he said: “I read your column every week, and enjoy it greatly. Please keep up the good work. I had pushed for you to be invited here as a speaker, but as the day has dawned I am compelled to leave early. I am very sorry to miss your speech, but I am sure you will do an excellent job. Please forgive me for my discourtesy as I must leave now to attend to an urgent matter.” He clasped his hands together in greeting, and departed.

That gentleman was Dr Yusuf K Dawood, our renowned surgeon, columnist, and author. His “urgent matter” was a life-saving operation. The good doctor shed his mortal coil recently, after a long and very fulfilling life. His very popular Surgeon’s Diary column appeared on Sundays in this newspaper for an unprecedented 38 years. Reading it as a child reinforced my desire to place words at the centre of my life’s work.

That little gesture by Dr Dawood has stayed with me for years. It gave me fresh courage and confidence at a time when I needed it, and I was able to launch into my speech with newfound fervour. I have read the multitudes of tributes paid to the very well-regarded man, across all Kenyan media, and I am not surprised at the genuine outpouring of appreciation for a life well lived. The doctor and writer reached many, helped many, encouraged many. He did all that while staying resolutely humble.

Humility is one of the most undervalued of traits, yet it is also one of the most quietly powerful. St Augustine said: “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” That is absolutely right. Those who are not humble cannot be truly virtuous in any other way. They think too much of themselves to be of any real good to the world. Their only world is the very small and narrow one that their own ego occupies. They live only for themselves.

Why do those who succeed in this life find humility so difficult to practice? They become high on their own supply very quickly. They imagine that their accomplishments (even trivial ones) give them a special status and elevate them above others. They start to believe that their opinions matter more, that their judgements are wiser, that they must be listened to at all costs. They snap and bark at everyone as though dealing with lesser beings.

Look up at the sky, folks, and tell me why you matter so much. We are, all of us, as nothing. Even if we conquered this entire planet, in the unbounded immensity of the universe we are only, as astronomer Carl Sagan put it, “momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.” We are all expendable and forgettable, and we have status only in our own imaginations. The only way to matter in this situation is to lose oneself and to connect with things bigger than ourselves.

An interesting coincidence: the aim of my talk that day for the Rotarians was to challenge them to do more—but by submitting themselves first. I said then: “In the Indian classical singing tradition (which goes back for centuries) there is something that even the most accomplished, the most famous singer is taught. You are always beneath the song. You are always beneath the audience. This is a lesson many of us need to learn, particularly those with some fame to their name, some achievements of note. No matter how high you go, you are still nothing. No matter what prizes you win and what fortunes you gather, you are still nothing. You are a nonentity, an all-too-brief combination of molecules that will soon be dispersed.”

The molecules that were once Dr YKD have now been dispersed. Yours will be too, someday, as will mine. When faced with this arresting reality, what then can any of us be but humble? Join me this Sunday in saluting a fellow columnist now departed, one whose many other virtues—wit, wisdom, generosity—were based on a foundational one: humility.

(Sunday Nation, 19 February 2023)

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