Very few people in the world would suggest that humility is not virtuous. Those who are humble are generally kind, caring, and loving individuals. It is one of many reasons why people like Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa and Gandhi were as influential as they were: their living out humility by addressing problems in the world in non-violent yet profound ways continues to be an inspiration to many throughout the world. It is both refreshing and ancient, this search for a humble life.
Ye,t many who search for such a life have a false view of what humility truly is. And those who either do not search for humilit,y or believe it is unattainable, feel that way as a result of a distorted picture they have of it.
Due to this, I feel it is important to establish a particular definition of humility, which I propose as: a state of being in which one recognizes that their talents, gifts, and even their very selves are not their own.
‘This is a bit confusing,’ you may be saying. ‘What does this even mean?’ A good question, and I will answer this by first suggesting what it is not.
Whatever definition we give to humility, virtually all people agree that humility is the opposite of things like narcissism, show-boating, selfishness, and the like. The reason why various athletic leagues deduct points for ‘unsportsmanlike conduct’, or the reason why we dislike conversations with that one friend or family member who only talks about themselves, is because such actions focus too much on one’s self, and oftentimes it is done at the expense of others. That is what selfishness, or pride, is. If gluttony is an overindulgence on food, greed- an overindulgence on money, lust- an overindulgence on sex, then pride is an overindulgence on the self.
Fortunately this is disliked and condemned on a broad level. Nobody likes a selfish person nor somebody who consistently gloats about their achievements.
Yet many people take their condemnation too far, which brings me to another extreme that falls far from the virtue of humility, and that is self-abasement.
To me, this is even more dangerous than selfishness; at least selfishness is near-universally considered wrong. Self-abasement, however, is oftentimes claimed as the definition of humility itself.
To prove this, let me ask you: how many of you know somebody who thinks that to be humble is to recognize that there is no good in yourself? How many of you know somebody who occasionally or consistently believes that they do not have any talents or personality traits that are good, effective, or useful? How many of you are that somebody, or sometimes become that somebody?
It is infuriating when I hear someone say, ‘There is nothing I am all that good at’ or ‘I wish I had some awesome skills like that person over there’. Even from a secular perspective, this is preposterous, for everybody has some sort of contribution they can lend to themselves and those around them. Yet this is especially the case from a Christian perspective. To suggest that you do not have anything of worth, or that you have no useful or good gifts and talents is to imply, whether you intend to or not, that God made you with no focus in mind, with no plan, with no care and with no love. This is a contradiction to God’s perfect and loving nature and is, thus, impossible.
We see now the two extremes: selfishness and self-abasement. Both contradict the inherent nature of humanity and both contradict the virtue of humility.
It is another thing entirely, however, to recognize the fact that we do have virtues and abilities within us while also recognizing the fact that the attainment of those virtues and abilities cannot be credited to ourselves, but rather to the grace and love of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Everything that we have within us is truly within us, but it also cannot be said to originate from us. This makes it both a virtue and a truth to say that we do possess these Godly things, yet we do not claim ownership of them.
In summary, humility is not an overindulgence on the self nor is it a complete denial of the self. To have humility is to recognize that there is a self with talents, abilities, and traits, but that those talents, abilities, and traits, and even your very self are not yours to brag about. They spring up and come to fruition because of the help and support of others and, most essentially, from God.
“Behold, this is the true and the Christian humility. In this you will be able to achieve victory over every vice, by attributing to God rather than to yourself the fact that you have won.” -St. John Climacus