“Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.” ~William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury
Humility may be the most misunderstood of all spiritual principles. Many confuse it with modesty—or worse, with the obsequious groveling of Uriah Heep, the Dickens character who frequently boasts about his own “humbleness.” But there is no humility in Heep’s character, only servility and false modesty, neither of which has anything to do with this powerful spiritual principle.
Humility also gets confused with humiliation, that awful experience of shame and disgrace that makes us feel worthless when it happens to us. But the only thing humiliation has to do with humility is that sometimes it levels our pride enough to make us begin searching for real humility in our lives.
To learn what humility really is, rather than what it is not, it helps to understand the word’s origins. The etymological root of “humility” is the ancient Indo-European word ghôm, which became the word “humus.” As every gardener knows, humus is the most nourishing ingredient of soil.¹ And as Stephen Gilbert notes, in order to understand humility we should:
. . . consider the function of humus, and how instructive that might be in our considerations of the meaning and practice of humility. If we think of humus as humble, and recognize how helpful it is to the new growth in a kitchen garden, we are unable to equate humility with poverty, need, or lack. It becomes a fecund, generous willingness to serve.²
Essential to the meaning of humility, then, is this “willingness to serve”-not for the sake of one’s own glorification, but for the benefit of others. When we understand this, we see that the sense of lowliness associated with humility relates to supporting others from below and nourishing their growth and development, as fertile soil supports the growth of crops, or as loving parents support the development of children. Furthermore, when we consider that the words humility, human, and humor all share this same root, we glimpse the significance of humility to being human-and we also see why one of the clearest signs of humility is the ability to laugh at ourselves!
If experiencing our full humanity requires us to serve others-our families, our employers, our communities, our God-then we need to see and accept ourselves as we really are, free from the narcissistic distortions of a false sense of self. This, too, is humility. It’s more than not having an inflated opinion of ourselves, but means that we don’t underestimate ourselves, either. It means recognizing our true strengths and weaknesses, and it means working to improve ourselves and our ability to serve. As the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions says, humility “amounts to a clear recognition of what and who we really are, followed by a sincere attempt to become what we could be.”³
Without humility, even sincere efforts to be helpful may be doomed by self-seeking and self-will. When we act out of pride and arrogance we misguide others, seeking our own glorification rather than doing the footwork necessary to be of real service. Even our best efforts usually fall short, sometimes proving catastrophic-not only to ourselves, but to those we sincerely mean to help-as any student of politics knows quite well! If St. Bernard was right about Hell being paved with good intentions, then lack of humility must be the foundation for the pavers, and pride must be the grout between the stones.
Perhaps the most essential characteristic of humility is what some call “a teachable spirit,” for we cannot serve effectively if we are unable to learn-to learn the truth about ourselves, our assets and liabilities, and to learn the truth about others’ circumstances and how we may truly be most helpful to them. And nothing makes learning more difficult than our own pride and arrogance. We cannot learn when we think we already know … or when we think we know better than the teacher. As Thomas Szasz said long ago:
Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.4
That lack of self-importance and “willingness to suffer an injury to our self-esteem”-or false pride!-is but one more way to describe humility. In other words, humility is what makes us teachable. It’s an attitude toward others an our own place in the world that we can cultivate in ourselves. When we know that we’re no better or worse than anyone else, but merely different in some ways, then we have no barrier to learning from others for we recognize that everyone has something to teach us. And when we truly know ourselves as imperfect human beings who at best know only a little, then we understand that no matter how much we know-or think we know-there is always more for us to learn.
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¹ Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Random House, 1993, p.189
² Stephen W. Gilbert, “Etymologies of Humor: Reflections on the Humus Pile,” in Sincronía, Winter 1996, reprinted here.
³Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: AA World Services, 1952.
4 Thomas Szasz, “Education,” in The Second Sin. New York: Doubleday, 1973.
Links to more information about Humility:
At MindTools, Bruna Martinuzzi on “Humility: The Most Beautiful Word in the English Language.”
Brett & Kate McKay, “The Virtuous Life: Humility”
“Humility in the Workplace,” from Rosa Say on LifeHack
John Baldoni on “Humility as a Leadership Trait”
“Humility,” by Joseph Naft
Suzanne Meyer explores the origins and meanings of the word “Humility” in “Humility, Humus, Hubris, and Humor.”
Books about Humility:
Whitfield, Whitfield, Park, & Prevett, The Power of Humility: Choosing Peace over Conflict in Relationships
The authors explain the nature of humility and its importance in developing healthy, authentic relationships with ourselves, with others, and as a society. Includes a section devoted to humility in the practice of AA’s 6th and 7th Steps.
Everett Worthington, Humility: The Quiet Virtue
Explains the transformative power of humility from a psychological perspective, illustrated by reviewing the character of noteworthy people in history. Includes a section on self-assessment.
Rick Mathis, Making More of Life with Less: Seeking Humility, Simplicity, and Silence
An exploration of the meaning and practice of three great spiritual virtues, informed by the author’s monastic experience.
God, Science, and Humility: Ten Scientists Consider Humility Theology
Essays by ten scientists exploring what our growing knowledge of the world teaches us about human limitations, the inadequacy of our conceptions of God, and the application of scientific methods to understanding traditional spiritual principles.