Young rice grows upward and stands tall. Curiously, as it matures, its grains arc down toward the ground. In life, the same is true; the more intelligent the person, the humbler they are likely to be.
Following the example of rice, we grasp that being human involves knowing how to lower our heads, and our pride.
To understand why the bow is so significant, it’s useful to remember that the symbolism of the act was well-understood by the father of Western philosophy, Socrates. The philosopher had been named by the Oracle at Delphi as the wisest of all mortals, which he attributed to the fact that he was aware of his own ignorance: “I know that I know nothing.”
After the Oracle’s declaration, many challengers came to Socrates with questions designed to stump him and undermine his reputation.
One challenger came and asked about the precise distance between the Earth and the sky, to which Socrates replied that it was exactly three feet.
The man replied that this could not be, since adults were usually five or six feet tall, and if the sky were so low, their heads would break through the clouds. Socrates’s reply was that if one wanted to stand between sky and earth, he must bow down.
The story illustrates the need for humility in our approach to life in this world. By acknowledging his own uncertainty about the truth, Socrates elevated himself above his contemporaries who mistakenly thought they knew everything. In the same way, bowing to others shows an inner dignity that raises us up.
Know Thyself: Bowing for Greater Awareness
The act of bowing is as much a considered action as it is a physical gesture. Bowing to another in no way means giving up or being servile. Rather, bowing shows our ability to put our egos aside, a mark of principled and civil people. In humbling ourselves, we gain self-knowledge and awareness of our place in the world. Those who know their real worth are far better off in the grand scheme of things.
Many of us are continually unhappy with our place in the world and are always wanting to better others. When we see our friends and co-workers getting promoted or getting raises, it’s easy to feel that we’re falling behind, and feel despair. If, instead of focusing on what others are doing, we looked at our lives, we would find that we already have a great deal. Constantly looking at others makes us forget this.
Most people work hard to achieve their goals, but some end up realizing that they spent too much time in pursuit of worthless things. Those who get the farthest in life are those who understand the need for humility.
Success through humility
If people recognize their own flaws and ignorance, then they also realize that they need to know more. The same holds true for the greatest minds of history. Isaac Newton, whose discoveries revolutionized people’s understanding of how the world works, described himself as a child on the beach who is beguiled by an especially smooth rock or pretty shell, “whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
The great physicist was well aware that if he “had seen further” than those that came before, it was by “standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Given his earth-shattering discoveries, Newton’s humility is a lesson that knowing one’s value leads to greater respect from others.
Simplicity, Struggle, and Success
Abraham Lincoln’s enduring legacy as one of history’s greatest statesmen often leads people to forget the tremendous trials he endured throughout his life. Before becoming President of the U.S. in 1860, Lincoln had to contend with persistent health problems and a political career that was a long line of failures in local, state, and federal elections.
Even after achieving his goal of becoming President, Lincoln then had to then overcome unprecedented divisions and strife to save the idea of a united country.
Despite his disappointments and difficulties, Lincoln never stopped working toward bringing peace, prosperity, and a better life to his country. In his 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation, while the Civil War showed no signs of ending, Lincoln managed to focus America’s attention on all that it had in spite of the conflict. “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked these great things,” he said.
This ability to show gratitude to a higher power at the nation’s lowest moment illustrates Lincoln’s belief in the ultimate victory of good.
Young people are forever thinking of how to impress their peers and wanting everything they see around them, which is a mark of their age. Unfortunately, this also means they are unaware of their weaknesses, such as excessive belief in their own abilities, lack of work ethic, inability to manage their anger, and a failure to understand the plight of others.
Given the pride young people feel in their achievements, they often fail to see those of others, so they cannot learn from their example. “Bowing to experience” is not a cop-out, rather it is a recognition that we all have a great deal to learn from others.