First, humility is not thinking terrible, false thoughts about yourself. It is no virtue to believe harsh, negative lies about yourself. There is nothing humble about believing you are worthless, basically incapable, stupid, or any other variation upon these themes.
So what IS humility? One mentor suggested this definition to me: “Thinking no more, and no less, of yourself than is truthful.” Unpacking this definition requires wisdom and thoughtful reflection. On the one hand, humans are glorious, wonderful, amazing creatures, full of dignity. On the other hand, we are frail, liable to error and wrongdoing, limited and often misguided. (Pascal’s Pensees contains an extended, insightful discussion of this phenomenon). As we reflect upon what is noble about us, we are encouraged; as we reflect upon our shortcomings, we are chastened. This is a balanced guideline for our sense of personal identity.
In particular, when it comes to a proper investigation, we need humility in order to admit that we might be wrong. It is a challenge to admit this – we all, to one degree or another, want to be right and be seen as right. But essential to the learning process is the admission that there are many things we do not yet know or understand. Some of these facts and reasons may overturn our current, familiar ways of thinking about ourselves and the world. A confident humility holds onto what is already known even as it looks to know more.
By contrast, one of the downsides of arrogance is the underlying insecurity. Without a habitually humble approach toward other perspectives, we become brittle and shrill about how we see things. But if we regularly seek to understand and thoughtfully consider other approaches, then whatever perspective we end up adopting, we can have the personal security and confidence that comes from understanding why we believe what we believe, and how that compares with what others think.
How could you practice humility today?