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Humility

Humility is not an innate characteristic of humans.  Babies don’t arrive from the womb crying, “I’m not worthy.” It is something which must be acquired over a lifetime.  I agree with James Matthew Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, who said, “Life is a long lesson in humility.”

In my youth, occasionally someone would accuse me of arrogance, of pride.  At the time, I could not see this in myself, but, inevitably as the passage of years gave me the perspective of viewing my life from some distance, yes, my critics were correct.  T. S. Eliot quipped, “Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself.”  If we are lucky and life does not kill us in our infancy, humility may be cast upon us.

This morning after arising from a good night’s rest, I sipped my coffee on the front porch as the sun was rising.  When I do have a good idea, for that matter, any idea, it’s often on my front porch at sunrise.  I think the reason the subject of humility came to mind was the absolute lack of this quality in many folks I encounter in life, not my own perfection in this realm.

The Bible speaks of humility saying that it leads to wisdom.  Of course the Bible’s emphasis is on submitting to God rather than one’s own ego.  Phillipians 2:3 states: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”

Catholicism views humility as sub virtue of temperance.  It defines humility as, “A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a humble opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake.  Legitimate humility consists of submitting to God and legitimate authority, recognizing virtues and talents in others giving them due honor and when needed obedience, and recognizing the limits of one’s talents, ability, or authority.”  Also, we are warned against too much humility.  Too much humility?  Not a problem in our society today.

Judaism states that humility is an appreciation of oneself, talents, skills, and virtues: not meekness, but the effacing of oneself to something higher.  I’m a little alarmed by my tendency to fall in line with Judaic thought so often.  Oh, well, I suppose I’ll remain a good Methodist youth in spite of this alarming tendency.

All major religions seem to have an opinion on humility. Buddhism’s aim is enlightenment: humility, compassion, and wisdom are the three components of enlightenment.  Amanitvam, humility, is interpreted by Hinduism as not seeking honors bestowed by others.  Some Hindus describe life as a battle to overcome our egos.  Islam primarily speaks of humility as giving one’s will over to Allah.  Sikhism professes that humility it to bow before God thus receiving peace and pleasure.

Of course, philosophers have their opinions: the philosopher Kant viewed humility as one having the proper perspective on himself; Mahatma Gandhi tied truth to humility saying without humility truth becomes an “arrogant caricature”;  and the philosopher Nietzsche viewed humility as a strategy of the weak to avoid being destroyed by the strong.

There has been a study made by Jim Collins and associates which found that a top-notch leader possesses “humility and fierce resolve.”  They define humility as including self-awareness, openness, and perspective taking.  Hmmm…I’m looking but I can’t seem to find these qualities in D. C.  I’ll keep looking.

Of all the writings on humility that I’ve read, the one by Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography is the one I most admire:

I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix'd opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny'd myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear'd or seem'd to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag'd in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos'd my opinions procur'd them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail'd with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.


Franklin concludes his statement on humility by confessing the following: “…even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”


Gregg Haik, in writing about George Washington’s correspondence in the dismal winter of 1777-78, states the following about Washington’s choice of words reflecting his humility:

If my perspective is correct…,” “I may not be seeing the whole picture but my impression is that…,” and “Here is what I think we should do.  Do you see a more effective approach?” can gradually replace the inflexible, inconsiderate, immoderate and fanatical approaches that tend to be taken when opinions are voiced and tempers flare.

Franklin, in an effort to bring the members of the Continental Congress to agreement in their support of the Constitution, stated: On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”  Obviously a call for humility.

Hmmm, it seems to me, in my humble opinion, that a little more humility is required of our elected (yes, they’re elected) officials in Washington where each and every man, woman, and dog seems to be implacable in their conviction that they and only they could possibly be correct.  Someone or all are incorrect.

I decided to Google humility education and found there are plenty of instructions on how to become more humble: 3 Ways to Be Humble-wikiHow, How to Become a Humble Person, How to Be Humble /eHow, 50 Ways to Be More Humble, Being Humble: Action Steps to be More Humble, How to be humble: Motivation.  You’re welcome to view these sights, but I don’t really believe that one can achieve humility through lessons, regardless of how erudite and sincere the teachers may be.  I’m Irish and the Irish seem to have a practical bent to them which leads them to the shortest path to a solution.  The Irish tend to believe that the shortest way to achieve humility is through a thorough ass whipping.


I’ve had my share of ass whippings, and, I believe I’m a better man for them.  When I was employed in education, I don’t believe I ever prevailed in a disagreement with a superintendent, but I believe I’m a better man for the attempts.  I’ve learned the hard way that logic and reason is no match for luck and igonorance, but I believe I’m a better man for accepting the challenges.

I believe by horribly twisting Malvalio’s speech in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to apply to humility, I can best summarize my experiences with the virtue: “…some are born with humility, some achieve humility, and some have humility thrust upon ‘em.”

Upon completion of this essay, I felt quite satisfied with my effort to express my thoughts on humility and believed that I was nearing perfection in my endeavors to become more perfectly humble.

Feeling proud, oops, I shared the subject of my latest essay with two friends of mine on separate occasions.  In each case my revelation was greeted by laughter and rude guffaws.

The struggle continues.

enough