Our world doesn’t value it, but desperately needs it.
Now that we’ve all gone through the ritual of making and then almost immediately abandoning our New Year’s resolutions for the 18th year in a row, there may be a more appropriate self-improvement project to consider: humility. We need to be more realistic about our ability to change. I say this pointing the finger firmly at myself. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but continually come up with grand self-improvement schemes that, if I was just a little bit more humble, I would quickly realize are well beyond my capabilities.
My whole life, I’ve struggled with arrogance. My confessor is probably exhausted with hearing about it … all the judgmental thoughts I wish I’d never thought, the dismissiveness with which I’ve treated other people. Arrogance is a symptom of a mind that lacks wisdom. The first step towards wisdom, says Socrates, is wonder. A person who looks at the universe with wonder has a childlike fascination at the mystery of all that he doesn’t understand. A person who wonders has appreciation for other people and marvels at how unique and interesting they are. This attitude of wonder leads to wisdom because it leads us to humbly listen and learn. On the other hand, an arrogant person is not wise, because he thinks he already knows everything and has nothing to learn. This arrogance, at least as far as I’ve examined it within myself, is a hidden insecurity, a need to impress others because I desire their adulation.
We all need to constantly monitor ourselves for arrogance. It’s the sort of vice that leads to stagnation instead of personal growth, because an arrogant person either thinks it’s easy to change and then ends up failing, or never conceives of the need to change in the first place. Change is possible, but it is very, very difficult, so we will be far more successful if we approach our goals with humility. This is why St. Augustine says, “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues.” Everything we do will go better with a dose of humility, so it’s worth thinking about.
What is humility? Let’s start by listing what it’s not. Humility is not feeling ashamed of yourself for no good reason, low self-esteem, lack of willingness to take risks, or passivity. A humble person does not reject compliments or refuse to accept credit for a job well-done. St. Thomas Aquinas, in a definition that is simple but accurate, says, “The virtue of humility consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds.” So, if we desire to be humble, we must know our ourselves accurately so that we know our limits. We know what we can do and also what we cannot do. A humble person is honest.
A number of years ago, when I began to take the concept of humility seriously, I decided to examine myself honestly. My first realization was that I could not simply stop being arrogant and change overnight (thinking I could was, well, arrogant). There were a few people in my life who displayed great humility and inspired me. I wanted to be like them, but knew I was nowhere close. It became clear that I needed to develop better habits and begin to take small steps towards that larger goal.
There are certain habits of humility we can all develop that, even if we don’t feel humble, will over time form us to behave more humbly, and eventually the outward change is internalized. I found a few good lists already on the internet — cultivate a generous mentality that shares credit, say “thank you” often, talk about “you” rather than “I,” ask for feedback, ask questions, listen, acknowledge setbacks, and, as we talked about already in this article, develop a sense of wonder.
Practicing humility results in a whole range of benefits. It soothes the soul, enhances leadership skills, helps with self-control, boosts work performance, and contributes to healthier, better relationships. What I’ve learned during my personal journey towards humility is fairly simple: People actually like me more (and I’m not being arrogant, it’s really true!). I’ve also noticed that I receive valuable input and advice if I’m willing to listen, even in areas I thought I had under control. Practicing humility has made me more honest, appreciative of others, and self-confident.
We never get all the way there, there’s never a moment when we can relax and declare that, finally we are more humble than everyone else, but the fact that the journey is ongoing is good news. It means there’s always something new just around the corner. Maybe becoming more humble is a resolution we all should make every year. If we keep working at it, who knows what we’re capable of accomplishing?