The Nature of Humility

I stood on the beach one evening with my toes in the sand and gazed across the waves out to where the slight curve of the horizon touched the sky. I reflected on the distance I could see, and thought about the lands beyond my sight. As evening fell, and I looked up into the expanse of the known universe, I contemplated how small and insignificant the vastness at my feet were compared to the celestial distances above. Who was I in relation to the enormous sights before me? What right did I have to think I could make a difference, to cast my light and be noticed, to touch the lives and hearts of others in any meaningful way?

I walked away from that moment profoundly humbled but determined to answer these questions. What came to me in the following weeks and months left me bewildered. Allow me to share with you, introducing situations and individuals who helped me along the journey.

We live in a world that says it values humility, yet in order to get ahead, it seemed I had to engage in constant self-aggrandizement, an oft-repeated plea to “notice me, see beyond mistakes to my potential, value me.” In interviews, I was supposed to project a confidence I didn’t feel, and knew others could see right through my façade. This nagged at my core until I began discussing those things I could do—my past accomplishments, my desire to improve, to learn, to evaluate mistakes and discover ways to turn them into strengths. I realized I didn’t have to be good at everything, but I could excel in some ways, and work to strengthen others.

It started with a man who I met one evening. He apologized for interrupting a conversation a coworker and I were engaged in, to ask a question. As we talked, he apologized again and again, for taking up our time, for his uneducated questions, for not knowing some answers, for seeking guidance, for… well, everything. I wondered to myself, as the two of us gladly turned our attention to aid him, why he felt the need to apologize so much. He had every right to interrupt us and ask for assistance. It was why we were there in the first place—it was our job to help him. Until that moment, I thought by demeaning myself I was acting humble.

Then there was another man I had the privilege to work with. He was one of the smartest, most talented developers I had ever worked with. He questioned every programming choice I made, never once accepted my logic, overrode every suggestion, derided many ideas, and discounted the rest. Regardless of the treatment, I learned a great deal and improved my skills in areas I had not considered before.

From these two men, I learned that hubris existed on a plane. On one end, self-debasement was an attempt to appear humble. The deflection of compliments, false portrayal of helplessness, and self-deprecating humor covered an inferiority complex. Likewise, tearing down others’ ideas, devaluing their contributions, and determining for everyone the “right’ course of action equally hid an inner feeling of inadequacy. Both were two sides of the same coin.

We often hear the phrase “in my humble opinion.” It is a sad commentary on today’s society of sixty-second soundbites and 280 character tweets that our words are judged before character. Of the truly great men and women I have known, any single comment, taken out of context, could appear arrogant. I have come to realize when I make such snap judgments, I am merely giving voice to the shallowness of my soul, a mirror reflecting my own self-loathing. When I feel the need to express a humble nature, fearing an utterance of conceit, I add my voice to the constant clatter surrounding us. Instead, if I personify my priorities through action, and those activities build another, repair a relationship, or celebrate an achievement of myself or others, am I not walking among the gentle giants?

I learned that a humble demeanor was not a denial of my worth, but rather a tool that allowed me to be on good terms with all people. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sack said,

“Humility is an appreciation of oneself, one’s talents, skills, and virtues. It is not… self-deprecating thought, but the effacing of oneself to something higher. Humility is not to think lowly of oneself, but to appreciate the self one has received. In recognition of the mysteries and complexities of life, one becomes humbled to the awesomeness one is and what one can achieve.”

Acting with humility does not in any way deny nor deface our own self-worth. Rather, it affirms the inherent worth of all persons. It places others first, and appreciates their worth as important. It does not deny our talents and gifts, but recognizes them, and encourages us to live up to our worth and something greater. To be clear, I’m not talking about devotion to God or religion, though. There are causes beyond our own self-interests in desperate need of our contributions, time and efforts. We only have to open ourselves to see them.

Every time we act in fear, and view another person with disgust, contempt, or even dissatisfaction, our universe, our circle of influence shrinks. Whenever someone crosses our path and we focus on their weaknesses, their not-like-us-ness, their presence hindering our ability to achieve self-inflating goals, our capacity to affect change diminishes. Its immediate effect may not be noticeable, but the cumulative effect appears in our countenance.

Once, several years ago, I was having one of those days, the kind where nothing seemed to work, In fact, it lasted for a couple of weeks. Then my boss called me into his office for a project status update. Knowing I had nothing but bad news to give him, I feared his reprisals over missed deadlines, potential termination of the project, and my usefulness and continued association with the team. After hearing my report, he looked up from his notes, and asked a simple question. “What can I do to lift your burdens?” He continued, “I’ve noticed you struggling lately, your countenance deteriorating almost daily, and the reason I called you in today was to find out how we can help you. Are there tasks we can reassign to someone else on the team? Do you need some time off, can we make a reservation for a car and hotel for a couple of nights somewhere?”

His genuine concern for my well being made all the difference. Knowing he’d make good on his offers gave me confidence to worry less about my inadequacies and focus more on the problems and profoundly altered the situation. His accurate perceptions of my capabilities and expressed trust enabled me to accomplish the tasks at hand.

On a sunny summer day, a softball player approached home plate. The batter picked his pitch and hit the ball sailed into right field, which bounced into the fielder’s glove. As the batter approached first base, the fielder threw the ball to the second baseman, who hesitated. Had he thrown the ball to third base they would have tagged the runner who slid past the base. Instead, he held the ball and prevented the batter from advancing past first base. I listened in horror as the coach berated the players, denouncing the pitcher for not throwing the pitch called in from the sidelines, the outfielder for not running faster and catching the fly ball. He spent an inordinate amount of time berating the second baseman for not throwing the ball to third base. As the next hour would prove, the mistake sealed the win for the other team. I was that second baseman and it was the last time I played softball. The toll that humiliation caused lasted far longer than the importance of that game.

I stumbled upon a quote by Abigail Adams which taught me a valuable lesson regarding the power of humility. We must actively practice true humility or its effects will wane, its potential will dwindle, and the circle of influence we have will diminish as the universe constricts around us.

“If you begin to think yourself better than others, you will then become less worthy, and lose those qualities which now make you valuable.”

The very nature of human existence is fallibility. We are flawed and imperfect, our efforts impaired, inadequate at times, insufficient and inefficient at others. Seldom do we see the whole picture, but base our judgments and criticism on incomplete and often biased information. If we do not embrace these facts, we deny the nature of our uniqueness. By declining to acknowledge our limits breeds an exaggerated internal sense of self. Uncomfortableness with perceived weaknesses feeds our self-contentedness, often felt as fear and expressed as anger. How we accept criticism determines the level of humility within us. When received, criticism can be perceived as degrading us personally, or a commentary of our performance. If we choose, critique offered with the highest intentions can signal a devaluation of our self-esteem. Criticism given in the basest sense does not lower our value nor lessen our contributions unless we allow it.

I severely cringe when I read definitions such as those at the top of the article. Or others identifying humility as an act or posture of lowering oneself in relation to others; or, as poor, deferential, undistinguished, underprivileged, demeaning, degrading, or debasing. I can’t think of anything less accurate and more destructive to interpersonal relationships than these definitions.

Consider this: the word humility derives from humus, Latin meaning from the earth or grounded. This suggests that humility is firmly grounded in a sure foundation. It is the recognition and acceptance of reality through open-mindedness to truth.

One day I wanted to purchase an item online. The company’s website offered a great deal on one line of their products, and I began the purchase process. Unfortunately, their shopping cart was less than admirable and I was unable to complete the purchase without paying full price for the offered sale item. When I called customer service, the representative failed to assist me, derided my comments, and in essence told me there were numerous other satisfied customers. The more I thought about the exchange, the more upset I became, until I telephoned and asked to speak with a supervisor. Following company guidelines the new representative wanted to know the reasons behind my request, and after unsuccessfully attempting to resolve the situation, forwarded my call to the supervisor. Even though I lacked perfect calmness in explaining the situation for the third time, the supervisor did not interrupt. Instead, they listened. When I was done with my remarks, they asked a few clarifying questions. They offered a coupon code and suggested I wait a day to try my purchase again. The customer service manager exemplified true humility, gathered information without prejudice and pretense, and made a change for good. All by just listening and learning.

True humility allows us to see real limits, in ourselves and others, and accept everyone as equals. Each person has something to teach us, even if you’ve crossed paths a hundred thousand times. For everyone grows and that growth can enlighten and enrich us, if we allow it. Regardless of how much you already know, practicing humility means remaining teachable. All of us are great, for we stand on the shoulders of greatness. Everyone has a story to tell for those who know how to truly listen. How much better would our exchanges with other people be if we entered them able to reconsider our evidences, sources, and premises, willing to be wrong, and ready to admit the limits of our own knowledge?

But what about those times when someone close needs correcting? Perhaps it’s merely a misunderstood fact, preventing them from a course leading to self-annihilation, or somewhere in between. It is not easy to correct someone without feeling superior to them. The fact that correction is needed indicates a mistake has been made by the other person. It is natural for us to feel superior and believe we know the answers.

All too often, though, we remain silent, hoping to preserve the relationship without “rocking the boat.” We allow fear of their reaction to guide our steps. Yet, in remaining silent, we demonstrate our concern for self overrides our love for the other. But the truth needs to be shared or the person who has done wrong, regardless of severity, will not be able to grow and change. For we who are to bear one another’s burdens, mutual correction is a profound expression of charity: it is a way of loving others who, like us, are prone to missteps.

We cannot control how others will respond (mamma aint happy? What a horrible misconception!), but when correcting others, we can approach them with gentleness. In true humility, we can approach them without fear of being wrong, superficial, or appearing superior. In this instructable attitude, if we, as Stephen Covey says, “seek first to understand, then to be understood,” we foster a personal interchange more conducive to building and uplifting one another.

Humility helps develop trust in others to do their work and reach their potential. Without it, one becomes skeptical of others, even control freaks, convinced that no one knows better what needs to be done. The highest form of authenticity possesses humility and fierce resolve. This suggests that humility is multidimensional and must include self-understanding and awareness, openness, and perspective taking. It is the non-judgmental state of mind when we are best able to learn, contemplate, and understand everyone and everything else. I like the way Lao Tzu put it:

“I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.”

The lessons I learned about the nature of humility profoundly changed my life. And while the answers to those questions on the beach will be different for each of us, for me they became a driving force. I appreciate the vast differences in all of us, the unique perspectives others bring to every encounter, and the lessons I learn by watching and observing. I learned that to not voice my opinions severely diminishes not only myself, but others as well. I don’t have to be great at everything, but hiding my experience robs you of the lessons you might gain and the growth you might achieve.

The human experience is not about conquest, but lifting and building each other. Hate is born from fear, love is created by comprehending ourselves and the world around us as we truly are—behind the anxieties and selfishness.

Our lives are made so much easier because of the efforts of great men and women of past generations. This world needs constant improvement and renewal. We are not here to merely gratify our impulses and consume what others have made, but to contribute to a cause higher than ourselves.

Acquiring humility isn’t easy, but it is a quality worth striving for. It doesn’t mean we have to give up on the ideas we love and believe in. It just means we need to consciously choose those ideas, be open to adjusting them, seek out their flaws, and never stop being curious about why we believe what we believe. True humility takes a strength and confidence to know who you are. You cannot display true humility without the power and confidence to express it!