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April 10, 1981

Mystic Moments of Humility

JAMA. 1981;245(14):1432. doi:10.1001/jama.1981.03310390034016

Many proud men and women confess to moments of utter humility. These generally occur when, awestruck by the vastness of space or time, one is overcome by a sense of personal insignificance. Conquerors of high mountain peaks admit to such feelings when the panorama of distant horizons overwhelms them. Even city dwellers whose horizons are circumscribed may be overpowered when, extending their necks and straining their eyes, they follow the walls of giant high-rises.

The overawing vastnesses need not be spatial or temporal. They may exist only in the imagination. How intimidating it is to realize one's ignorance vis-à-vis the immensity of accumulated knowledge.

I must confess that such awe-inspiring occasions have made no dent in my self-esteem. I did not feel humble when, poised on the ledge at the top of snow-capped Mount Everest, I gazed at the immensities around me. Nor did humility stir within me when, stranded