What Makes A Good Human?: Humility

It is with pride that I introduce the next important quality to being a good human.  Well not too much pride.  I mean I could be wrong.  This is all just my opinion after all.  Anyway it’s humility.  Out of all the seven deadly sins, the one considered the worst and the one in which all others can stem from, it is pride.  It was pride that caused Lucifer’s fall into Hell in the Bible.  Pride, ego, conceit, whichever turn you prefer to use all of these are ultimately harmful to an individual and society.  When the self, or when a group puts themselves above others, saying they are better, failing to notice the achievements of others, and excessively admires themselves this is a recipe for disaster.  A lack of empathy, narcissism, bullying, oppression all stem from conceit.  Humility is the cure for this disease.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” – Mark 9:35

Humility in practice can be difficult to achieve, however.  For instance, we know that having a positive self-esteem can be beneficial for increased happiness and confidence.  So isn’t having some pride important?  Should I not be proud of my accomplishments?  And what about the other end of the spectrum?  Should I go around saying “I’m not worthy, I’m but a speck of dust at the bottom of your shoe, I shall default to your wisdom, intelligence, and might?”  This is not humility either.  It’s either not genuine, or simply fear.  Humility is not submission.  Humility does not ask us to put ourselves beneath others, only to consider the possibility.  Anyone we meet regardless of age, status, race, gender, etc., may have something to teach us. They may be doing something in a better way that we are not.  They may have a piece of wisdom about something that we do not have.  It asks to consider the possibility that we may enjoy a privilege that they do not and to understand that should that privilege be taken away, we may be no better than anybody else. Humility asks to accept the fact that we may be different but no better or worse and thus is a seed for equality.

“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” – Proverbs 11:2

Humility is challenging to master because of its subtlety.  It does not eliminate pride, but it tempers pride.  There’s a difference between telling someone you are a good teacher, and that you are the best teacher.  This is why “excessive” admiration of self is included in the definition of pride.  So you may become an expert in something, but you can admit that someone might know more.  You can admit that you might not know everything.  You can admit that you might have been wrong about something.  Humility doesn’t prevent us from being confident and proud of our accomplishments but it simply reminds us that we are far from perfect, that we can still grow and learn.  Humility feeds into curiosity in this way, and then curiosity can feed back into humility.  As we continue to learn new things we may realize we didn’t know as much as we thought we did, thus humbling us.

The servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say words of peace. – Surah Al-Furqan 25:63

Humility is probably one of the central tenets of every major religion; speaking to the dangers of pride and the importance of being humble before others and before God.  I feel that one of positive aspects of God is to be a constant reminder that there are forces more powerful than yourself in the universe.  As an atheist we can get our feelings of humility through science itself.  One cannot help but feel small in the context of a universe that science has shown to be quite large and magnificent.  We know we are mostly helpless against major disasters like hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and volcanoes.  We know we are the product of evolution, one of many animals and plants on this planet and that we must share it.  Evolution teaches us that we are specially adapted to our environment, but so is every other species and thus we have no more right to life than any other. Our actions impact others and ourselves, and we must be careful not to have too much conceit as a species lest we bring about the end to our own existence or the existence of other species.  Science by its very nature is humble, because it is constantly skeptical, constantly asking questions, constantly self-corrects as it moves forward.  It can never be too big for its britches because it usually isn’t long before someone comes along and improves, refines, or disproves an idea already established.  And this is why those who have fundamental religious views can never truly be humble, because if you are in position that you are so certain that you are correct that no other well-evidenced idea has the ability to change your mind then humility is not one of your strong suits.  Humility is also accepting the possibility that you might be wrong, perhaps even about some very important things you believe in.

Be humble, be harmless,
Have no pretension,
Be upright, forbearing;
Serve your teacher in true obedience,
Keeping the mind and body in cleanness,
Tranquil, steadfast, master of ego,
Standing apart from the things of the senses,
Free from self;
Aware of the weakness in mortal nature. 

-Bhagavad Gita

Another important aspect of humility comes about in the aspect of love.  For most of us we have our strengths and weakness, but when entering into a relationship it is easy to put our defenses up, to make positive impressions, and to be our best self.  This is a difficult illusion to keep up, and some are better than others.  We can fearful of exposing our weaknesses and faults.  However, if we really want someone to love us for who we are, we must be genuine.  Humility tears down the walls of conceit and gives way to revealing our vulnerability.  This is often the scariest part of any relationship because when someone sees your vulnerability they can exploit it and really hurt you.  Humility is there to remind you that neither you or the person you love is perfect. And for someone to truly love you for who you are, such humble exposure to each other is, I believe, a necessary part of a long lasting, loving relationship.

It is humility that exalts one and favors him against his friends. – Kipsigis Proverb (Kenya)

Can one be too humble? Yes.  There are times when at least the appearance of confidence, and/or decisiveness is important.  There are times when you may have to take charge.  There are times when you are the smartest or most capable person in the room.  Being humble to the point where your self-esteem is so negatively impacted that you fail to recognize your own accomplishments is harmful.  Humility to the extreme can often just seem self-deprecating and is not a strong quality to have. Humility’s role is to always be there, hovering, and keeping us from getting too complacent.  Humility keeps us vigilant.  Humility reminds us we may have more to learn.  Humility helps us love better.  Humility helps us recognize that we are finite and have limits.  The most wonderful thing about humility is that while it erodes pride, ego, conceit, whatever you want to call it, it is at the same time very empowering.  I believe it draws good people to you, and surrounds you with love and friendship; people you can trust. It also empowers by giving you a sense of gratitude for all the blessings, good fortune, and love that you have in your life.  When you are genuinely humble you know that life isn’t always in your hands and that one must take time to be thankful for what you have.  This is something we all need to do more often.

13 thoughts on “What Makes A Good Human?: Humility

  1. Great post Swarn. i couldn’t agree more.

    I have always been cold to excessive pride, elevating one self to god status = someone I only want to meet once. As you mention going to the other end of the spectrum one is so humble I am not sure if they have a sense of self. I think as you do, it takes tempering of both attributes, they are after all both sides of the same coin, to produce a human I wouldn’t mind having a beer with.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Swarn,

    You wrote: “A lack of empathy, narcissism, bullying, oppression all stem from conceit. Humility is the cure for this disease.

    Very thought provoking post. When I see someone full of pride (in a negative way) I see a very insecure person. It’s a mental disorder. Lots of studies show this to be the case. Studies show that bullies most often have come from abusive homes, and could be experiencing an attachment disorder. Having a lack of empathy could come from having too much power over a long period of time, impacting neurotransmitters, therefore too much dopamine in the brain.

    “Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.” http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/basics/definition/con-20025568

    In his book, “The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain”, neuroscientist Ian Robertson writes:

    Power changes the brain triggering increased testosterone in both men and women. Testosterone and one of its by-products called 3-androstanediol, are addictive, largely because they increase dopamine in a part of the brain’s reward system called the nucleus accumbens.

    But too much power – and hence too much dopamine – can disrupt normal cognition and emotion, leading to gross errors of judgment and imperviousness to risk, not to mention huge egocentricity and lack of empathy for others.

    Science has even shown that personality can be impacted (even selfishness) with the timing and amount of hormones released by the mother to the fetus during gestation. I do think we can raise children to think that they are the center of the universe, and these children will certainly have a difficult time in social settings.

    I agree that some types of methods/practices can be beneficial in rewiring the brain to be more prosocial, but neuroscientists do stress that it’s not always effective depending of the cause of the behavior.

    Please know that this is not an attempt to counter your post. It’s just to say that I was very humbled when I learned that there are environmental, biological, and neurological reasons why people behave the way they do. This knowledge allowed me to be more understanding towards those who have impacted my life and others in a negative way.

    You wrote: “Humility reminds us we may have more to learn.”

    Well said.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I used “pride” since the word is more familiar to those who are familiar with the seven deadly sins, but of course what excessive pride really refers to here is vanity. And I think that anybody who is vain is definitely not as smart as they think they are, beautiful as they think they are, capable as they think they are, etc. It seems clear to me that it is a mask. Even those that are the best at something, they are not the best at everything. Nor is that skill necessarily the most important one in the world or could not more often than not be equaled if not now, some time in the future when someone better comes along. Not to mention the fact that you’ve probably enjoyed a good deal of privilege to be able to develop that talent. There is at least no one that I know whose vanity is founded on something that I would say is solid, and even if it was, they’d still be better off having some humility. So I have also noticed that the more vain someone is, the more easily they are angered when you give them due criticism. Pride and anger are often connected which is why pride as a deadly sin is considered the starting point.

      And I agree that the reason many people become this way is a defense mechanism, and/or partially part of some sort of disorder. I have observed this aspect of people who are vain as well. So it was a bit glib of me to say that humility is the cure for the disease as I wasn’t trying to be exactly literal. When I sum up this series I plan on addressing partly what you are bringing up now, because I do know that these things I am talking about are not necessarily easy or perhaps even possible given the circumstances, but my goal here is to list a number of values which I think are important to strive for and foster than others. Ultimately I think vanity is interesting for the very reasons you mentioned as deep down inside it’s really the opposite going on, and what we see on the surface is the mask. I guess I’ve never been one to be a fan of the mask and I do feel that being humble challenges us to not hide and to reveal ourselves to others. Easier said than done, especially when revealing our weaknesses and being vulnerable opens us up to the possibility of being exploited and hurt.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: What Makes A Good Human?: Solitude – Cloak Unfurled

  4. Pingback: The Value of I Don’t Know – Cloak Unfurled

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