Humility may be the most misunderstood of the virtues, but it remains one of the most important. Humility is important because it is needed to love God and other human beings. Since we cannot find true happiness without loving God and neighbor, we cannot find true happiness without humility.
But what exactly is humility? The humble person is not the one who proclaims, “I’m nothing but a worthless worm. I’m no more important than dirt.” Indeed, such words sometimes aim at soliciting complements and the favorable opinions of others. Ostentatious displays of “humility” reveal pride. As C.S. Lewis said, “A man is never so proud as when striking an attitude of humility.”
What then is true humility? The word comes from the Latin “humus,” which means “ground.” Humble people are grounded people who know and live in accordance with reality. They know they are not angels; they know they are not worms. Humble people are down-to-earth and realistic about themselves. As my philosophy colleague Jason Baehr puts it, “Humility is the virtue that helps us remain attentive to and properly responsive to or accepting of our limitations.”
Like other virtues, humility is a golden mean between the extremes of pride and self-loathing. Humility is the mean between excessive self-love (I’m a perfect angel) and defective self-love (I’m a devilish worm). As the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjolk put it, “Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe.”
Humble men and women recognize and accept their limitations rather than holding themselves in exaggerated importance. Winston Churchill noted, “When you’re 20 you care what everyone thinks, when you’re 40 you stop caring what everyone thinks, when you’re 60 you realize no one was ever thinking about you in the first place.”
Knowing their true place, the humble person is balanced, rather than self-obsessed. A famous preacher once said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” Likewise, St. John Henry Newman said that the most humble people “surprise others at their very calmness and freedom from thought about themselves.” In his book “The Road to Character,” David Brooks made a similar point: “Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space — self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry.”
Does humility matter? Only if love matters. The virtue of humility is vital for preserving love. Human beings inevitably disagree and hurt one another’s feelings. Psychiatrist Dr. Abraham Twerski pointed out, “Human beings need for things to survive: air, food, drink, and someone to blame.” When things go wrong, and East of Eden things are always going wrong, we begin to point fingers.
When such conflicts arise, a humble person honestly asks, “Did I contribute something to this conflict?” If the answer is yes, the humble person apologizes and tries to improve. For the humble, the inevitable conflicts of living do not spell disaster for their relationships with family and friends. Indeed, if each person in the relationship is honest in admitting imperfection and earnest in turning to do better, the bond between them can deepen.
However, if neither person is humble, then the relationship may end entirely or grow cold and distant. A humble person never hesitates to say magic words like, “I was wrong. I apologize. Please forgive me. I’m going to make it up to you.” A humble person also does not hesitate to do the deeds that make these words real.
In a similar way, humility is needed to love of God properly. To repent of sin and turn to God is an act of great humility because it is a recognition of the reality of our failures and of our need for God’s mercy. The proud person refuses to admit misdeeds and sins and so cannot improve in love of God. The self-loathing person who admits of misdeeds and sins but cannot improve for despair admits of no improvement. Every time a person goes to the sacrament of reconciliation with sincerity, the person grows in humility.
There is a lot of psychological research, which I summarize in my book “The Gospel of Happiness,” that shows the many benefits for gratitude such as better health, improved relationships, and deeper happiness. But without humility gratitude is hindered. The proud person is reluctant to acknowledge the benefits that come from other people or from God. Giving thanks to others or to God are acts of humble people. If we want a grateful heart, we need to cultivate humility.
Given the vital importance of humility, how can we grow in this virtue? The wrongdoing of other people gives us an opportunity for growth. Newman wrote, “We cannot tell how we should act if brought under temptations different from those which we have hitherto experienced. This thought should keep us humble.” There, but for the grace of God, go I.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta recommended the following maxims to grow in humility:
- Speak as little as possible about yourself.
- Keep busy with your own affairs and not those of others.
- Accept small irritations with good humor.
- Do not dwell on the faults of others.
- Be courteous and delicate even when provoked by someone.
- Choose always the more difficult task.
The Christian psychologist Paul Wong suggests other ways to grow in humility:
- Receiving correction and feedback graciously.
- Refraining from criticizing others.
- Forgiving others who have wronged us.
- Apologizing to others we have wronged.
- Enduring unfair treatments with patience and a forgiving spirit.
- Thinking and speaking about the good things of other people.
- Rejoicing over other people’s success.
- Counting our blessings for everything, good and bad.
- Seeking opportunities to serve others.
- Being willing to remain anonymous in helping others.
- Showing gratitude for our successes.
- Giving due credit to others for our successes.
- Treating success as a responsibility to do more for others.
- Being willing to learn from our failures.
- Assuming responsibility for our failures.
- Accepting our limitations and circumstances.
- Treating all people with respect regardless of their social status.
A great way to grow in humility is to imitate the saints. The philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung notes that the Blessed Mother is a great icon of humility: “At the annunciation, Mary shows us that true greatness comes from looking to God for one’s ultimate sense of worthiness, and the greatest achievements of virtue come from relying on God’s power working in us.”
St. Bernardine says that “after the Son of God, no creature in the world was so exalted as Mary, because no creature in the world ever humbled itself so much as she did.” If Scripture teaches anything, it is that God does great things through the humble.