The other day my daughter asked me what the word “humility” means. I wasn’t completely satisfied with the answer I gave, so I’ve been reflecting on her question. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far, with some examples that come to mind.
Humility means changing your mind — and your heart — when you’re wrong.
There was a great example of this principle in the news recently. During a vigil held to honor the victims and survivors of the mass shooting in Orlando, Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox described how his attitudes toward the LGBTQ community have changed:
I grew up in a small town and went to a small rural high school. There were some kids in my class that were different. Sometimes I wasn’t kind to them. I didn’t know it at the time, but I know now that they were gay. I will forever regret not treating them with the kindness, dignity and respect — the love — that they deserved. For that, I sincerely and humbly apologize.
Over the intervening years, my heart has changed. It has changed because of you [the LGBTQ community]. It has changed because I have gotten to know many of you. You have been patient with me. You helped me learn the right letters of the alphabet in the right order even though you keep adding new ones. You have been kind to me. … You have treated me with the kindness, dignity, and respect — the love — that I very often did NOT deserve. And it has made me love you.
Humility means acknowledging when you’ve gotten lucky.
In his new book, economist Robert Frank reflects upon his career. Instead of attributing his success solely to his brilliance or hard work, Frank says:
Bottom line: I got lucky. If not for an exceptionally unlikely confluence of events, the outcome of my job search ... would have been to end up at a teaching institution in the Midwest. As it turns out, one of my graduate school classmates was hired by that very same school. Over the years, he would call me from time to time, just wanting to talk, complaining that few of his colleagues were doing anything he found interesting. … [M]ost of the time he found little stimulus in his environment. Expectations about faculty research were low. I know that if I’d gone there, I would have fit right in. I’m a lazy procrastinator by nature, and if my supervisors hadn’t expected me to produce much, I could have delivered on that. But by a stroke of good fortune I ended up at Cornell, which turned out to be a magnificent environment for me.
Humility means living simply.
Pope Francis lives in the Vatican guesthouse instead of the Apostolic
Palace. He rides in a Ford Focus instead of the luxury cars of his predecessor. According to Jesuit priest James Martin:
For most of his life, Jorge Mario Bergoglio lived a life of poverty … Not all priests take that vow of poverty. So the Pope is used to living very simply, and I think we see that over and over in the way that he dresses, in the way that he chooses to live. That vow of poverty has deeply influenced Pope Francis’ way of life, and I think that his simplicity of life is something that has been deeply attractive to people around the world.
Humility means resisting the temptation to seek after power.
Close to the end of the Revolutionary War, American army colonel Lewis Nicola proposed that George Washington should become King of the United States. Washington rebuked this idea and wrote to Nicola:
Let me conjure you then, if you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your mind, and never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like nature.
When told that George Washington would relinquish his military power after a successful conclusion to America’s War for Independence, King George III is reported to have said, “If he does, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Yet that is precisely what Washington did. In a letter to the leadership of the Reformed German congregation of New York, Washington wrote:
And if my humble exertions have been made in any degree subservient to the execution of the divine purposes, a contemplation of the benediction of heaven on our righteous cause, the approbation of my virtuous countrymen, and the testimony of my own conscience, will be a sufficient reward and augment my felicity beyond anything which the world can bestow.
Humility means allowing your assumptions to be challenged.
Biblical scholar Scot McKnight describes how he reconciled his religious faith with the scientific evidence for evolution:
At times I came to the conclusion that my Bible might be wrong. Then … I learned that “my Bible” was in fact my reading of the Bible. Maybe it wasn’t so much the Bible that was wrong but the way I was reading the Bible through the lens of my own questions — questions shaped more by my past worries about evolution and less by learning to read the Bible in its own historical and theological context. …
Learning about science has taught me humility in my Bible reading and has pushed me to think again, to read again, to ask again, and to wonder again what the Bible was saying when it was written and how the Bible was heard by its original hearers (so far as the evidence permits us to know such things).
Humility means keeping victory (especially military victory) in perspective.
Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent who was killed a few months before the end of World War II, wrote the following in anticipation of the allies’ victory:
We won this war because our men are brave and because of many things — because of Russia, England and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature’s material. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other peoples. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than we are proud. I hope we can rejoice in victory — but humbly. The dead men would not want us to gloat.
What other examples of humility can you think of? What else does humility mean to you?