On Humility

Some years back, there was a country song that wailed “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble”. And indeed it is, in part because humility is one of those spiritual qualities riddled with paradox. If you think you have it, you probably don’t. And if you see yourself as proud or arrogant, you’re probably closer to humility than you realize.

We tend to think of humble people as either groveling or as very self-critical or both. In fact, humble people are fully aware of their shortcomings, their sinfulness if you will. But I would argue that humble people are also aware of their gifts. Humility includes a balanced sense of myself — good and bad. Character defects and character strengths. Gifts and liabilities. All in equal measure.

How does one develop humility? Again, the paradox. It’s something that emerges while one is focused elsewhere. People working a Moral Inventory in a 12 Step program may be fostering humility. Here are some other experiences that can foster humility:

1. Working in some manner in a position of servitude. I learn a lot from my therapy clients but I also learned a great deal about life in my pervious job as a mailman.

2. Having a personal therapy experience. Psychotherapy is not for everyone but there is something powerful in opening one’s woundedness and dark side to another person.

3.Failing at something. I failed a class in graduate school. Almost flunked out. This certainly taught me a lot about my arrogant belief that I could skip class and yet still pass.

4. Having a sense of humor to include the ability to laugh at yourself.

5. Knowing some humble people. These are people who are not grovellers but who go about their business without seeking attention, content to try to live a good loving life in their corner of the world. These people are teachers of humility but would never see that.

So, much like faith, if I think I’m humble, I’m not. As Thomas Merton says “When a proud man thinks he’s humble, his case is hopeless.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions, 1961, p. 49)

Reflections: 1. Does humility have a place in your spiritual world? How do you struggle with it?

Further Reading: It’s hard to find reading material in this area, in part because, as the Buddhists say, “He who says does not know. He who knows does not say.” Embracing your wounds is probably a doorway so I can recommend Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer.