Merriam-Webster defines humility as “freedom from pride or arrogance”—and humility, it seems, has gone out of fashion. Modern society seems to encourage character traits that fly in the face of humility, such as narcissism, entitlement, and self-centeredness.
We’re surrounded by experts and gurus claiming to have all the answers; arguing seems to have become a national pastime, contributing to an environment of discord and combativeness; and arrogance is commonplace and misconstrued as confidence. As a result, relationships have been robbed of warmth and deep connection.
Our ancestors deemed humility to be fundamental. In the East, Confucius called humility “the solid foundation of all virtues.” In the West, the Bible has much to say about humility: for example, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)
Obvious displays of great hubris or obnoxious arrogance are easy to spot, but a lack of humility isn’t always overt. All of us can suffer from a lack of humility at times. It’s something worth keeping in check—just how far up on our high horses we’ve climbed—and it’s good to remember that we are all imperfect.
When we’ve lost sight of humility, we close ourselves off from connection with others, to new ideas, to our true selves, and to our greatest potential. When we fail to foster humility in our character, we become disingenuous, attempting to portray to the world some artificial version of ourselves we’d prefer to show off. We become the know-it-all, doling out unsolicited advice, touting our sheer awesomeness, and shutting out any idea to the contrary.
When we maintain humility, we can retain authenticity and self-awareness, and are open to learn, to relate, to give, and to grow. Here are a few simple ways we can encourage humility in ourselves.
Socrates famously said that “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” If true, what’s there to be arrogant about? We can remind ourselves that there is very little we truly know and very little we can truly control. We can simply recognize that life is mostly a mystery and we are all doing the best we can with what we have.
Rather than feel remorse for our ignorance and ineptitude, or be overly conceited about our accomplishments or blessings, we can simply sit in wonder of it all.
Care Less for Reputation
How often do we adjust our actions and decisions based on what we imagine other people will think or say? If we live for the sake of upholding an image, act in the hopes of pats on the back and gold stars, and avoid criticism at all costs, we are not being true.
We should aim to do as well as we can with what we know we should do, and let the opinions of others fall where they may.
A lack of humility can lead to a lot of pretending. If we’re constantly showing off, believing we’re above others or the best there is, we’ve lost sight of the truth (or are intentionally avoiding it.)
Nobody’s got it all together. Nobody’s got everything figured out. Nobody has a perfect life. We all make mistakes. We all have flaws and shortcomings. We all encounter misfortune and suffering. But we allow ourselves to relate to and connect with others if we can admit our faults and need not brag about our strengths. We are free to live and act authentically if we can maintain a sense of humility.
Humility can be misunderstood to be a low level of confidence. To the contrary, as Rick Warren once put it, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
One simple way to practice humility is to aim to understand and relate to others genuinely. When talking to our family, friends, and colleagues, we can try to attentively listen to them, put ourselves in their shoes, and understand where they are coming from. We need not always insist on our ideas being adopted or our ways being right. We can put the needs and wishes of others before our own.
James E. Faust said: “A grateful heart is the beginning of greatness. It is an expression of humility. It is a foundation for the development of such virtues as prayer, faith, courage, contentment, happiness, love, and well-being.”
It’s very easy to incorporate a gratitude practice into our everyday lives. Before bed, we can mentally think through a handful of things we’re grateful for. In a journal, we can jot down a set number of things we’re grateful for each day. We can discuss the things we’re grateful for with our family at the dinner table. We can use our daily walk or exercise time to recall the many things we have to be grateful for. We can make it a point of observing the countless blessings in our lives and melt into a heart of gratitude.
“By bringing nature into our lives, we invite humility,” said author Richard Louv.
Nature has a way of reminding us just how small we are. We stand before great mountain ranges, look out into the vast ocean, or gaze upon the endless sky of stars and we can’t help but be humbled before it all.
The more we observe and think about nature and its perfect design, that spirit of awe is precisely what a humble heart will feel.
When we lack humility, we’re usually a bit too caught up in ourselves. If we can muster interest in and curiosity about the different perspectives, stories, and qualities of others, we can experience humility. Allowing others to impress us, amaze us, and inspire us is a gift to ourselves and them and engenders deeper connections.
God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason, as they say. If we listen more than we speak and recognize that we still have much to learn and that others may have something valuable to share, we are practicing humility.
When we find ourselves judging others, that’s a sure sign we could use some work on our humility. Rarely do we have enough information to make an informed judgment about another person’s character or situation. Simply recognizing our inability to accurately judge as well as our own inadequacies may leave us with a more broadminded stance and compassionate heart.
We can get carried away with unfounded opinions about how to save the world, fix the country, or improve society, but we may just as easily lose sight of the importance of making our bed every day or playing well the roles we play in life.
Rather than setting out to save the world and arrogantly looking down upon anyone who doesn’t share such a lofty goal, we might take a look at our immediate life. How’s that going? Are we taking care of what we should? Are there things we’re avoiding? Are there things that could be better? Do we really have the answers to complex global issues but not the capacity to handle our local responsibilities?
With a humble heart, shifting our focus to local matters, we may just find that the consequences of doing very well what we should do leads to global improvement all the same.