What is the value of humility?
October 29, 2008 4:28 AM   Subscribe

What is the value or point of humility or being humble?

I’m interested in various kinds of personal development and the concept of humility and being humble is sometimes suggested as a good thing in books and by people that I know.

In my current thinking, it seems like a redundant idea and possibly limiting people from feeling as good as they can and living life to the full.

I found this information on virtues:

“The Seven Contrary Virtues:
humility, kindness, abstinence, chastity, patience, liberality, diligence

Practicing these virtues is alleged to protect one against temptation toward the Seven Deadly Sins: humility against pride, kindness against envy, abstinence against gluttony, chastity against lust, patience against anger, liberality against greed, and diligence against sloth.”

It seems to me that pride in this case is used as a kind of synonym for arrogance. If that is so, then humility seems to be a crude tool to try and deal with arrogance. It seems to be saying ‘you love yourself too much, put yourself down and love yourself a bit less’. In fact, it seems to me that arrogant people don’t love themselves enough, and the arrogance is a way of shoring up their insecurity. It could be helped by having true pride in themselves, and loving themselves more.

Looking at one of the other examples, chastity, if someone is having a lot of unhealthy sex, these days we wouldn’t really prescribe chastity to counteract the lust, we would generally suggest methods to make them feel better about themself.

Another possible way of looking at it is in a kind of social context. For example, if you’re learning from a teacher, you're is supposed to be humble. If you're is out with a group of people, it’s a bad idea to insist on your own point of view, or go on about yourself. However, I don’t really see the need to think ‘I am just a lowly student, the teacher is more important’ or ‘these people aren’t that interested in me or what I think’.

Is it not better to simply have respect for other people and their needs, have good social skills and in some cases respect for someone’s greater experience?

So, I suppose my question boils down to things like ‘what does humility mean to you’, ‘what do you like about humble people’ ‘how have you adopted humility in your life’?

A little bonus: I recently saw the phrase translated as ‘the gentle shall inherit the earth’ which seemed to make more sense to me than ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ Is it possible that there is an alternative translation from greek or Hebrew which would be better than humility?
posted by Not Supplied to Human Relations (34 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
"Don't be so humble; you're not that great." [Golda Meir]

Instead you should just try not to be an asshole
posted by uandt at 4:54 AM on October 29, 2008

Personally, I think being humble has a lot to do with having good social skills. People want to socialize with those who are humble and are generally turned off by arrogant pricks who don't know when to shut up or accept that things aren't going to go their way.

Humility isn't about "putting yourself down." I think it's about being comfortable with yourself, being comfortable with the things you know, and being aware of the fact that you can learn something from everybody.

The most humble people I know are the ones that have a lot to brag about but (a) aren't arrogant or braggarts and (b) listen to other people's input and treat most everybody the way they want to be treated.
posted by PFL at 4:56 AM on October 29, 2008 [5 favorites]

I think of humility alongside a quote from psychologist Thomas Szasz, that goes "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."

Having humility doesn't mean assuming an attitude of moral inferiority, that you are not (along with the teacher you mentioned) also a child of God (or whatever language you prefer); it does mean accepting that you are also not morally superior, closer to God, etc., that you are fallible and may have something to learn from essentially anyone.
posted by jon1270 at 4:56 AM on October 29, 2008 [23 favorites]

I think humility is about perspective.

You're one of six billion people. A whole lot of them are smarter/prettier than you are.

When we lose that perspective and start acting all special, like ours is the only opinion, idea, car on the street, or vote in the box that matters... that's when we're bad people.

But if you accept and keep perspective in mind when you do anything... then you are a better person.
posted by rokusan at 5:19 AM on October 29, 2008 [8 favorites]

(You are not, in other words, a beautiful and unique snowflake. The world is not your oyster. If you act that way, you're making life more miserable for the rest of us.)
posted by rokusan at 5:20 AM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

What is the value or point of humility or being humble?

If it's genuine, it helps prevent developing a reputation as a complete and utter jackass.
posted by flabdablet at 5:25 AM on October 29, 2008

what does humility mean to you

A definition that works for me is "knowing exactly who you are and what you should be doing." The "exactly who you are" part means to me an acknowledgment that I am neither the greatest person nor the worst piece of crap in the world/workplace/community etc.

Also what rokusan said above about perspective.

what do you like about humble people

I know some people who their almost constant thoughts are to be of service to other people, and often times they don't tell everybody about it. I've heard the most humble thing you can do is do something nice for someone but don't tell anyone about it.
posted by marxchivist at 5:34 AM on October 29, 2008

My dictionary defines humility as "a modest or low view of one's own importance." This isn't putting yourself down, it's just being honest about your place in the world, which, as rokusan said, is objectively relatively insignificant. Such honesty, such a worldview consistant with reality, has value in giving you more control over your life and your own happiness.
posted by scottreynen at 5:36 AM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I got humble when I realized that I was never going to be the star of any show, but that I make a pretty good key grip, and then started to act accordingly.
posted by disclaimer at 5:50 AM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's the bowl or plate being empty. Because empty means you can then fill it. If you attempt to fill a plate or bowl that are already full - you get overflow and a mess and nobody can possibly understand the intent.

Empty the bowl or plate i.e. ego - start with a clean SLATE. Nothing to defend. Nothing to protest. Nothing to get upset or hold grudges against. Just simply - CLEAN. Empty. Echoing emptiness. So empty - it's spotless. Not a speck of anything - not a morsel left behind. THEN - you can start putting on to the plate and bowl *stuff* that matters. But till that happens you will be in a state of *removal*. And that state is called the State of Humility. Will - Will power. This is the first step.
posted by watercarrier at 6:02 AM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

It seems to be saying ‘you love yourself too much, put yourself down and love yourself a bit less’.

I think that view pairs humility with shame, whereas I see it paired more with gratitude. To me humility doesn't mean putting yourself down but rather recognizing the conditions/people/resources/etc. that allowed you to become the fabulous person you are. As an example one of my least favorite phrases is "proud to be an American." I think that's the height of misguided arrogance, being proud to have had the dumb luck to be born in a rich country that has freedom of speech and little risk of contracting polio.

Humility means I recognize the good fortune that's allowed me to be in the healthy middle-class educated position I'm in, and I would like to do what I can to help more people have access to the same conditions. It doesn't mean I need to sew my own clothes, but it means I recognize that most of the clothes I can buy on-the-cheap are cheap because somebody along the line of production isn't earning enough to get ahead. It means that even though I have a decent education and I've been able to master a few things over the years, I recognize that the vast, vast store of knowledge is beyond my grasp.

Recognizing my own good fortune doesn't make me feel like I need to put myself down, but rather humble and grateful.

(thanks btw for this question, Not Supplied, I appreciate the reminder)
posted by headnsouth at 6:16 AM on October 29, 2008 [6 favorites]

On the bell curve you're probably right in the middle. More or less mediocre. But there are so many people that even if you're up pretty good in the higher tail there are still millions of people smarter, prettier, stronger, faster, etc. than you. You are one person on a planet of six billion in a galaxy of billions of stars in a universe with billions of galaxies and don't matter in the grand scheme of things. Shortly after you die you will be forgotten, unless you are Jesus, Caesar, Aristotle, Newton, in which case you will be remembered for a slightly longer time. If you are as important as a Jesus or Caesar you'll never even know because you're long dead by the time it's apparent.

Everyone else is in the same boat.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 6:17 AM on October 29, 2008

So true, Mrs. Brown, TheOnlyCoolTim--

Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown,
And things seem hard or tough,
And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft,
And you feel that you've had quite enough,

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour,
That's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned,
A sun that is the source of all our power.
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of the galaxy we call the 'Milky Way'.

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side.
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us it's just three thousand light years wide.
We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point.
We go round every two hundred million years,
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth.
posted by headnsouth at 6:22 AM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Humility is often a false front we employ to gain power over others." - Rochefoucauld
posted by jasondigitized at 6:24 AM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd second the comments that it's not about feeling inferior, it's more about not feeling superior.

I'd say a practical value of humility is that being honest about your own limits means you're less likely to trip up by overestimating yourself.
posted by lucidium at 6:27 AM on October 29, 2008

When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, 'Give this person your seat.' Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, move up to a better place.' Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

(Luke 14:7-11)
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 6:52 AM on October 29, 2008 [6 favorites]

Humility is the state of knowing where you came from: a puddle of liquid seed
To where you are going - dust
and that there is something greater, smarter more divine than you - and you are merely a speck in the cosmos - important but not that important. As Golda Meir once said: “Don't be so humble, you're not that great.”
and just know that you're here to serve - not to be served. This isn't Vacation 101 - this is Soul School and there are no vacations.

posted by watercarrier at 6:53 AM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

The question "Why should I be humble? What's in it for me?" is.... well let's just say that it requires more than a literal answer.
posted by rokusan at 7:00 AM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

What's wrong with thinking you're special, or that you have ideas unique to you? It doesn't make you better than any one else but it does make you different. We are different, we're all special snowflakes in the general drift. I think humility is about recognising the unique thing about any one person, whatever the hell it is. Whatever makes people shine, let them shine.
posted by freya_lamb at 7:06 AM on October 29, 2008

I think humility can also help you to be happier in life. It's important to find a balance between striving for something you really want and being happy with what you have, and humility can help with that by helping you to acknowledge what you're most suited for. In my own life, this has been essential both personally and professionally. I have a good job, but not a great job. I have hobbies that I enjoy but that I'm not great at. Humility has helped me to be less competetive about those things and allowed me to enjoy them for what they are, not what I would ideally like them to be.
posted by marginaliana at 7:19 AM on October 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

Humility, to me, means the ability to listen to others in an openminded fashion. It means never taking for granted that you're right. Being humble benefits me because I can learn from other people, I can make mistakes without feeling I must protect my ego, and that people don't think of me as an asshole.
posted by desjardins at 7:20 AM on October 29, 2008

What is the value or point of humility or being humble?

Because it most closely resembles the actual facts of the situation. It doesn't matter how good you are, you are only one of six billion. They are not kidding you when they say dust to dust.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:30 AM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

What's wrong with thinking you're special, or that you have ideas unique to you? It doesn't make you better than any one else but it does make you different.

Very few of these special, unique ideas are really that special and unique. This sense that everyone is a special snowflake with something truly novel to offer the world might even have the negative consequence of preventing people from actually working really hard to do something that truly impacts the world in an important way.

Why bother working hard to do contribute to something important if you already believe that you are important and special just by having been born?
posted by tastybrains at 8:10 AM on October 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'd disagree strongly with Rokusan's comment. You are, in fact, a beautiful and unique snowflake. It's just that there are six billion other unique snowflakes of the same species. And ten billion unique snowflakes in the rest of the animal kingdom. And a trillion unique planet and starry snowflakes in the milky way. And your unique snowflakiness should be considered in the light of these facts.

Humility is striking the right balance between self-negation and self-aggrandization - you are at one and the same time utterly inconsequential and extremely important. Sometimes it'll be your birthday party, and it's completely fitting for you to be right to be the centre of attention. Other times it'll be the party of that guy from work, and you've got to pay your dues to that guy. Humility is the ability to discern in any given situation whereabouts on the scale you are, and to act accordingly.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 8:31 AM on October 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

Why bother working hard to do contribute to something important if you already believe that you are important and special just by having been born?

Your perspective is unique, by defination - it's yours. I did not say that this makes us important - I said it makes us different to one another. Sometimes these differences are massive and world-changing, often they're not but my point is that fostering a sense of uniqueness and specialism can lead to the independance of mind and deed that makes things happen. Humility to me is about giving everyone (including myself) the benefit of the doubt regarding potential - and not piling on with the 'but you're nothing special!'.
posted by freya_lamb at 8:39 AM on October 29, 2008

I think you've discovered one of the many contradictions in biblical concepts when they're viewed against the backdrop of modern society. I think you're correct when you label humility as a crude tool, especially in the context you outline in your question. In fact, all the seven deadly sins and their corresponding virtues read like a crude social etiquette guide. Viewing things from a modern standpoint, again, I agree with you that something like arrogance is probably more of a case of low self esteem as a opposed to too high self esteem. In fact, things are far more complex than simply countering a perceived negative trait with its opposite. I think that's why many of the answers in this thread have simply redefined "humility" to mean something else. The biblical definition is no longer relevant.

To really understand this concept and what it meant, I think you should study biblical Mediterranean culture. (I've only studied it a little, otherwise I might be able to offer some insight.) Our society is vastly different, and all of these social concepts have evolved considerably as our understanding grows more and more complex. But you already know this because your own definition of humility is far better than the biblical one.

As far as what humility means to me: I suppose it means recognizing people's humanity and treating them with respect in most cases; however, lowering the opinion of yourself seems counter-intuitive and damaging, so one must treat oneself with respect above all else; and adhering to a more fluid guide for your actions is probably best practice because sometimes it is justified to treat people as if they are lower to achieve certain ends; and anyway, it doesn't matter because the loss of community and the migratory nature of society make the repercussions of not being humble minimal in most cases.
posted by luckypozzo at 8:59 AM on October 29, 2008

True humility is one of the hardest learned virtues but one of the most transformative, if sincere.

The reason you associate humility with abasement is probably because so many people teach it to young people so crudely. Humiliation, imposed by others, is one of the most cutting social tools and it's always astonished me how quickly so many people resort to it. Putting someone "in their place" is always presumptuous.

The best lessons in humility that I have learned have been taught with complete gentleness and kindness, by people who themselves are humble. The self is such a burden. So is pride. When you stop outside of arrogance and self-absorption, when you develop a sense of proportion, it's actually a relief. The world does not rise or fall depending on your personal fortunes, but equally as powerful is the idea that you do not rise or fall depending on the state of the world. Whether you are successful and people are fawning over you -- or you are at your lowest ebb, and all have abandoned you -- you still have an unshakable sense of self. No one can put you in your place, because you are already there.

When you are not humble, success can be a bitter curse, as the wreckage of so many celebrities' lives confirm. When you are humble, defeat does not obliterate you. It teaches you. It is actually a form of supreme self-confidence, one built on a true perception of things instead of hot air.

It is a hard thing to explain. It is best learned by observation. I first learned it from my grandfather. I can only tell you that when an proud, tough man becomes strong enough to be gentle and humble -- when all that power is channeled away from cheap swagger and into calm readiness -- it is a deeply impressive thing. You feel completely safe in the company of such a person, and it later it becomes very difficult for people who only pretend at humility and grace to fool you for long. The real thing is so rare, and so beautiful.
posted by melissa may at 9:09 AM on October 29, 2008 [22 favorites]

Evolutionarily, it appears that there is a benefit to many species who practice humility (though discussed in terms of "altruism"), according to some research that was published within the last year or so. Additionally, it seems that humans are born with the natural inclination toward this type of behavior (in testing toddlers, they automatically assist adults without being asked to do so, when, for example, the adult drops something on the floor). I think if we start to look at what we can achieve when we are humble, placing others' needs above our own selfish desires, then we ought to be able to recognize that sometimes it isn't about us. Biologically speaking, this means the survival of our species. But in less scientific terms, it means better quality of life for everyone.
posted by greekphilosophy at 9:12 AM on October 29, 2008

I think humility isn't something you can purposefully seek out - it's something you gain while you're busy doing something else other than focusing on how special you are. As Henry Miller said, "Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music - the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself."

If you purposely try to act humble for personal gain - well then you're basically Uriah Heep.
posted by hazyjane at 9:21 AM on October 29, 2008

My conception of humility is most like headnsouth's above. I am lucky enough to be given many many advantages just because of the lottery of my birth. I had enough to eat growing up and had educated parents who showered me with books and helped me in school. Given these advantages, I've done fairly well. I always want to remember however that had I been born to a different family, in different circumstances, I probably would not have been able to do as well.
This, to me, comes down essentially to a liberal vs. conservative view of things. Bleeding heart liberals, like me, think that there are many very talented and intelligent people out there who merely because of a lack of education or lack of opportunities just don't have as impressive a resume as someone born to a more well-off family who's just as talented and intelligent might have.
In India there are always debates about affirmative action that center around this point. Those against affirmative action talk about merit and say that everything should be decided on the basis of "merit" alone. But how does one even define "merit"? Especially in a country like India with millions below the poverty line any conception of merit that doesn't take socioeconomic circumstances is essentially worthless.
posted by peacheater at 10:51 AM on October 29, 2008

That last line should be: Especially in a country like India with millions below the poverty line any conception of merit that doesn't take socioeconomic circumstances into account is essentially worthless.
posted by peacheater at 10:52 AM on October 29, 2008

Someone mentioned "ego" earlier but didn't develop the idea...

Being humble, to me, is about recognising one's ego for what it is, your story of yourself, and, instead of investing yourself in that story, connecting with your true self, your consciousness.
posted by Lleyam at 2:55 PM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:23 PM on October 29, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies. I'm sorry I couldn't join in the thread yesterday. I can see the value in humility if it's letting go of the self/ego, focusing on something greater than oneself and not being self important.

However I feel it's used a lot in this context - "(You are not, in other words, a beautiful and unique snowflake. The world is not your oyster. If you act that way, you're making life more miserable for the rest of us.)"

This is what I can't really agree with. If someone is celebrating their individuality, living their dreams and loves themself, then as long as they're not being arrogant or pissing on my parade they will only make life happier for me.
posted by Not Supplied at 6:19 AM on October 30, 2008

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