As an alumnus of Wake Forest University, I am always proud to tell my story with a great superstar of academia.
It wasn’t Maya Angelou, who was hands down the best-known professor there. I did encounter her, though I never took a class with her.
Rather, this story involves a quiet man whom I knew at first only as “Allen” and met at a lecture on Italian cinema. He happened to be sitting next to me, and he asked me if I was a student of the professor giving the talk. (I was.) He shared that he was also a professor on campus and always loved the Italian language, though he told me his first language had actually been Yiddish. At the end of the talk, he casually mentioned that he taught a course on Dante and perhaps I would consider taking it or sitting in some time. I said I would though, alas, I never did. From time to time, I’d see him around campus, and he always gave me a friendly “Hello” when I saw him.
It wasn’t until some time later that I realized he was no ordinary professor. Rather, he was none other than Allen Mandelbaum who published what many considered “the” definitive translation of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”. He was also the winner of many awards including The National Book Award for his translation of Virgil’s “The Aneid”. Simply put, he was a superstar in the academic world until his death until 2011. He even got a shout out posthumously in Dan Brown’s best-selling Inferno.
However, as impressive as all that was, what I remember most is his humbleness and kindness. I thought it was pretty remarkable then and even more so now.
Staying humble in today’s world is easier said than done. While there has always been arrogance present probably going back to the dawn of man, nowadays it seems everywhere—thanks largely in part to social media. While social media has many positives, one of the negatives is it can over-inflate our egos.
Let’s be blunt: most of social media is a false construct. There is an expected code of behavior in which we are supposed to “like” everything. Getting constant praise especially for the most mundane “accomplishments” can lead us to believe we really are more special and more important than the average person.
Even those who really are accomplished run the risk of losing touch with humanity if they let it go to their head.
Sometimes being humble can be hard even for those of us who don’t feel we have huge egos. Below are three tips I have found most helpful to mitigate our egos and retain humility.
First, remember that the world does not revolve around us. One of the ways I remind myself this is to simply listen to others. Get to know them, ask about them and their experiences.
Secondly, learn how to take a compliment. A simple thank you is far more sincere when someone praises us than faux modesty.
Thirdly, whenever we get that feeling that the ego is taking over, I suggest taking a walk outside. If you live near the ocean, take a look at it and see just how tiny you and any other human being is compared to that. The same is true for those of us who live near a forest or even the city (the latter doesn’t even have to be a huge city).
While there is something to be said for taking pride in notable accomplishments, humility reminds us that at the end of the day, we are all human. While some of us may be lucky enough to create great work or art that will be remembered for a long time, ultimately, we are all going to die.
In our own way, we all matter and leave an impact on the world.
Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
No matter what we do, we all have a chance to leave our mark by choosing humility. Allen’s manner moved me far more than his work ever could.
Author: Kimberly Lo
Editor: Caroline Beaton