“In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.” – H.W. Longfellow
When you think of people who try to live "modestly", or with humility — meaning that they do not boast, show off, or elevate themselves above others; and that they seek ways to serve others — you often think of spiritual devotees: monks, nuns and the like.
You may, like I do, admire those people with half-lidded eyes, generally in favor of the work they do and their lack of self-centeredness, but not quite sure *why* anybody should really pursue that path, instead of any of the more normal ones — the ones that aren't harmfully boastful or self-aggrandizing, but also not devoted to emptying and lowering themselves.
I adore the philosophical Taoist answer to this "why" question, and I got a big fat freshly-baked pie of clarity to the face about it this week, and thought it made a great holiday post.
Here's the thing: Religions will generally try to convince you that modesty is a) tied to being religious / part of their/your religious practice, and b) something you'll be rewarded for because of supernatural reasons — i.e., God likes modesty, so act like a nun and He/It will reward you. Taoism (by which I always mean "philosophical Taoism", just for ease of writing) has a wonderful habit of explaining why things are good, independently of "because I said so" answers like religious dogma or supernatural assumptions.
Taoism explains that modesty is a good idea because of the law of conservation of energy, plain and simple.
Energy seeks balance, like water — in fact, like all matter, and all energy (because they're the same thing; remember your Einstein). In the whole Universe, motion happens in the direction of emptying what is full, and filling what is empty. Something can block this motion, but that only causes tension to build up, tension which will eventually be resolved, and the endless slosh restored. You can build a dam, and that will change what happens when; but it will not change that water seeking its balance.
If philosophical Taoism is a religion (and there are good arguments to be made that it's not; for instance, the lack of theistic deities or supernatural explanations), its central tenet is that "the basic and obvious rules of how the Universe works also apply to human lives and decision-making". This is an assumption, but a pretty damn good one, easily defensible by simply asking a doubter what evidence they could possibly have that the laws of nature don't apply to how humans should live their lives and make decisions. They're laws of nature. So is gravity. Gravity applies to us, because we are inside nature. Why the heck wouldn't balance / energy-conservation apply to us too?
You can go from there to the normative, moral formulation: Being a good/smart person means generally trying to act in concert with the motions of the Universe, rather than fighting them. Instead of religious faith, we have faith that the laws of the Universe matter, and apply to us, and are good signposts for figuring out how to act. …But in actuality, you can skip right over the moralizing, and just go straight to "what makes practical sense".
Modesty, humility, and service to others are not, to the Taoists, something to be done because someone else says to, be they Pope or mystical spirit; or even, primarily, because the Universe kinda wants us to. No, they're simply a good idea because they are how you buy good luck. Do you want the Universe on your side, the pressures of balance and the innate movements of energy to be pushing for you, rather than against you? Well, then remember: What is empty is made full. If you are "full" — full of yourself, of arrogance (agh, the million kinds of arrogance), of mountains of treasure, of surety that you know everything — then the natural order of things will be pushing in the direction of taking you down a notch. But if you take actual actions to make yourself emptier — if you sacrifice ego, let others take the praise, give away everything you can, and look for opportunities to give help whenever possible — then you will be making yourself empty, and Universal law will be acting, in all the billion small ways it does, to bring things to you.
It's not a guarantee; the world doesn't work in simple equations. Comets fly around and hit things; making actual predictions is subtle and tricky, and probably in a lot of ways not worth the effort. But everything does generally work according to some basic principles, and it's undeniable — and requires nothing supernatural to explain — that if you act in concert with those, if you follow the dance-steps the planets and everything on them are leading with, then you will have better luck overall, and a much better shot at peace and happiness regardless of what happens, than if you fight against it.
I had occasion recently to be re-studying some of what the I Ching has to say on modesty and humility, on empty and full (which is incredible to study in nonphysical terms while simultaneously studying it physically in martial arts) and awareness of this Universal law as a guide for living; and then a day later, I re-watched the old Bill Murry Xmas movie Scrooged with my family. And there at the end was Mr. Murray's wonderful modern take on the Ebenezer character, teary-eyed with revelation, urging people to realize every day the truth that reveals itself to us sometimes during the holidays: That if we give, we receive, not things but miracles -universal good luck. He talks about the broader miracle of realizing that the more you give, the better you feel, and the better the things that will come back to you, all on their own. "It'll happen to you," he urges, "You just have to want it. And once it happens to you, you'll see that it works, and you'll get greedy for it, and you'll realize that you can have it every day…" (I'm paraphrasing, but the speech is, while goofy, quite excellent. If you haven't seen it in a while, check it out here.)
Bill Murray is literally talking about how the winter holiday, the spirit of Xmas, is a chance to glimpse the truth of modesty, of giving to receive, of emptying yourself in order to entice the Universe to fill you.
To be downright cheeky about it, we could say that for every dollar you give away, the laws of physics give you, on average, $1.618 back.
(OK, I'd better stop. :P)