“Humilitas occidit superbiam.” Humility kills pride. I learned about this phrase during my stay in Italy. (Yes, another column about my trip!) It was, in fact, incorporated into a painting by the Italian artist Caravaggio.
Quick side note here: I’m not an art history major. I have never studied art. Truth be told, I really don’t like classical art at all. I’ve never been able to appreciate old art. Even the Mona Lisa would probably bore me. Clearly, I just wasn’t born with that kind of artsy bone in my body.
But, that’s why the Caravaggio painting was so important to me. This painting is a portrait of a famous biblical scene – the victory of David over the giant Goliath. In the portrait, David is portrayed holding the severed head of Goliath with what appears to be a saddened look on his face. He holds a sword in his hand with an inscription that is barely visible – “humilitas occidit superbiam.”
Ready for the shocker? Caravaggio painted the head of Goliath in the image of himself.
Some people may think this is a little weird – maybe Caravaggio had some problems he should have talked to a therapist about. In reality, he did have a lot of problems.
I briefly read about his life and this painting before the trip, and learned that he had one heck of a nasty temper. After he started painting, he became quite the hot shot. That is, until his arrogance and temper got in the way and he ended up killing a man. This David and Goliath portrait was, in fact, created as an apology for his actions.
Now, let’s take a break from Caravaggio for a second and put this into a modern day perspective. We all take pride in ourselves, right? We are supposed to!
If everyone was always ashamed of themselves and their work, the world would be a much more miserable place. So, pride and self-appreciation are good things.
However, you start to run into trouble when your pride and self-appreciation turn into vanity and arrogance.
We are not perfect. I know it, you know it and it’s been said by billions of people before us. The recognition of this fact is actually what gives way to humility. According to Dictionary.com, the definition of humility is a “modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc.” In other words, being humble means not thinking of yourself as better than other people.
Can I make a confession now? I’m really judgmental sometimes. Sometimes, I knowingly make harsh judgments about my peers and other times it just happens automatically.
I attribute this feature of my personality not only to my human nature, but also to other societal influences. I was really, extraordinarily, painfully awkward in my middle school and early high school years. I’m talking the works – colorful braces, a haircut straight from the ‘70s, eyeliner everywhere except where it should be and, above all, the inability to communicate with 99 percent of my peers.
During this “ugly duckling” phase of my life, I was judged pretty hard. As in, I saw it happening in front of my eyes. I saw my classmates avoid eye contact with me in the hallways and make fun of me when I timidly spoke up in class. I was also constantly assaulted with images of how I should look and act in order to not be judged and be popular instead. These images came from television shows, movies, magazines, books and, especially, from other girls my age.
I spent a good part of my early teenage years trying to conform to these standards. And, in turn, judging everybody else who didn’t. The funny thing is that as soon as I got to college and became more comfortable with my individuality, I made a complete 180 degree turn.
Instead of judging awkward girls, I started judging pretty girls – girls who looked like they’ve just been beautiful fashionistas from the second they were born. I don’t consider myself a hardcore hipster, but I’ve judged people pretty hard for being too “mainstream.”
The point of all of this is that I’ve wasted so much of my time and energy trying to mentally make myself better than other people. I don’t believe in human perfection, yet I’ve still tried to put myself on a pedestal over other people, which has yielded some pretty negative consequences.
“Humilitas occidit superbiam.” What a game changer.
I’m not saying that everyone should paint a picture of their decapitated heads in order to be humble, but to simply just keep this phrase in mind, humility kills pride. Once you start recognizing how small you are in the grand scheme of the universe, you just may find your life changing in ways you never expected.