Of all the virtues, humility seems to be the most elusive. Partially because we have the wrong definition of it, and partially because we don’t want to own the consequences it brings.
What is humility?
Simply put, humility is a reality check; it’s a metaphorical mirror to show us what we look like. It has absolutely nothing to do with thinking less frequently or more lowly of oneself. Really, it’s quite the contrary. Being humble involves us continually thinking about ourselves.
Humility clinically and unbiasedly acknowledges where we are in life, regardless of where that is. It says, “This is me, this is where I am and how I am in life. Now, move on and continue to improve.”
Reality sucks. We’re a broken people, which is part of the reason why we live in an era filled with ignorance and arrogance.
We’re ignorant in the sense that everything is acceptable and “right” as long as it makes us feel good, because it can’t possibly be bad if it makes us happy and doesn’t directly hurt anyone, as long as it doesn’t go against the grain of society too much.
And we’re arrogant because we actually let ourselves believe that.
Part of the problem is that, in this era, judging is labeled as something horrific and terrible. We have to judge. We have to judge people, their actions, their motives, everything. It plays a big part in how we determine what right and wrong are.
Actually, by definition, in order for us to form an opinion about anything, we have to judge.
Humility requires judging, a lot of it. And to make it even more difficult, we have to turn that judgment inward on ourselves.
Humility is entirely about viewing ourselves; viewing our motives, our actions, where we are in reality, and where we stand in that reality in relation to a holy and perfect God.
It’s a reality check.
Modesty, a close relative of humility, is generally associated with one’s outward appearance, when it’s actually more of an interior disposition. Like humility, it is tied to truthfulness about one’s own soul. It demands honesty about things not seen. And contrary to popular belief, modesty is not the underestimation of one’s worth. Instead, it acts as a restraint against the inordinate desire for recognition. While everyone desires recognition, a modest person quells the longing for fame. Modesty checks the impulse to wallow in praise and to take credit. It’s essentially the anti-vanity (paraphrased from Humility, by David J. Bobb). Humility acknowledges where we are in reality, sees where we need to improve, and moves on.
The consequences of humility are also quite steep. Just like how we’re not able to un-see a picture, once we exercise our humility and judge inward, we can’t go back to not knowing about ourselves. Awareness just doesn’t work like that. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, what we find will generally be a rough pill to swallow.
I’ll end this with an excerpt from the book Humility, which sums up this humbleness thing very well and in much better detail than I could ever hope to do.
A Moral Taxonomy:
“Humility is the first of the virtues,” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, “for other people.” When it comes to one’s own life, HUMILITY is among the hardest of virtues because of the HONESTY it demands about one’s own soul. Humility reveals to man that he is not his own maker and that the individual is not the measure of all things. Reminding us of our imperfect nature and the human propensity to evil, humility calls us to overcome our tendency to self-aggrandize. It asks that we put others first in thought, word, and deed. Humility requires that we admit when we wrong and then change course. It makes one unafraid to ask forgiveness, and it demands that we use any power granted to us to promote PEACE, do JUSTICE, and act with MERCY.
Among contemporary virtues, humility is often slighted as the wimpy one— if seen as a virtue at all. In fact, humility is strong because of the order it brings to a soul. As a check against the UNHEALTHY PRIDE, or ARROGANCE, that is marked by an inordinate LOVE OF SELF, humility helps us recall our dependence upon the divine and each other. This reminder does not mean servility or weakness but rather the proper recognition of one’s abilities and merit. Humility makes one a servant, never a slave. It is a complement, not a contradiction, to HEALTHY PRIDE. Both are essential to the achievement of SELF-GOVERNMENT, or the rule of the passions by right reason and a conscience formed with care. Humility helps guard against the soul’s rebellion in pride run amok. As Abigail Adams wrote in 1780 to her husband John, “Pride, vanity, envy, ambition, and malice are the ungrateful foes that combat merit and integrity. Though for a while they may triumph to the injury of the just and good, the steady, unwearied perseverance of virtue and honor will finally prevail over them.”
Humility is often accompanied in a well-ordered soul by modesty and meekness. Contrary to popular misconception, MODESTY is not the underestimation of one’s worth. Rather, it restrains the drive to recognition. In resisting the natural impulse to claim credit and crave praise, modesty is the anti-VANITY. MEEKNESS is the denial of the power of oppression. A RESILIENT and RESOLUTE virtue, meekness prizes COMPASSION. Though people who are modest, meek, and humble are chastened by an awareness of their fallibility, this does not mean that they are plagued by SELF-PITY or low self-esteem. In fact, humility lets the theological virtue of hope shine most brightly. It is the striving of an arrogant man, when proven futile, that deteriorates into self-pity and ends in despair.
Humility builds one up. It commends PIETY without pomposity; it urges KINDNESS without regard to reward. Humility is a prerequisite to PRUDENCE, or practical wisdom; it permits one to make decisions less on who gets the glory and more on the merits of the matter at hand. Humility enables COURAGE and points WISDOM in the right direction. It is the backbone of TEMPERANCE and a helpmate to JUSTICE. Humility is the crown of the virtues . By enabling human beings to avoid the temptation of GLORY and FAME, humility makes possible lasting greatness of soul, or MAGNANIMITY.