“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of humility. In this crazy business where we hope and strive and work to help people halfway across the world, there are so many things that can go wrong. There are barriers of culture and language, questions of privilege and inequality, and the lingering fear that our efforts will be fruitless. We work in complex environments, where it is impossible to anticipate all of the challenges we could potentially face. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of cynicism and then paralysis, believing that this work is futile and impossible, so we might as well just give up.
On the other hand, I have heard so many examples of good-intentioned people who think they have all the answers. They feel that they know how to “save” poor communities and if they just do this or that project, poverty will be eliminated and people will live perfectly happy lives! This kind of close-mindedness to the intricacies of culture, the limitations of the reality on the ground, and the incredible bias we have as outsiders means that projects are likely to fail or even have a negative impact on the very people they are trying to help.
So how do we navigate these two extremes? How do we keep ourselves from cynicism and also avoid overconfidence in our own understanding and abilities? I have begun to think that humility is the only way. We have to constantly remind ourselves that we don’t have all of the answers. In fact, I’m not sure we even know what all of the questions are! When we admit that we don’t know everything, we can adopt a mentality of teachability, learning from the people around us, the people we are serving, the organizations and individuals who have been wrestling with this work for decades, and from our own successes and failures. We’re committed to having “skin in the game” in the work of eliminating waterborne disease in conflict zones. But I also want to be committed to the daily practice of humility, because it seems that this is the only way we can ever hope to accomplish such a lofty goal.