Humility tends to be eyed askance these days, given a certain degree of lip service but little enthusiasm. It seems like the kind of virtue other people might want us to have, for their benefit rather than ours.
But there are a great many misunderstandings about humility.
Humility is not humiliation. Humility is something you choose for yourself; humiliation is something others force on you.
Humility is not hypocrisy. The reason why it has that reputation is due to the aforementioned lip service. Humble people don’t need to tell you they are.
Humility isn’t grovelling upsuckery, a pretence carried out to manipulate others into doing what you want. (Looking at you, Uriah Heep.)
Humility isn’t even running yourself down. That is more accurately known as false humility. False because it isn’t what you really think, and false because it isn’t really humility, either.
Humility, surprisingly enough, is freedom.
Humility is freedom from carrying the weight of the world. Too many of us are being slowly crushed under the burden of everything that is wrong in the world today: war, famine, genocide, climate change, mental health disorders, and so on and so forth.
The humble person does not bear this weight. They have come to grips with themselves as a human being with human limitations, and they do not have unrealistic expectations of themselves as some sort of superhero messiah-figure who should be putting the world to rights.
This is not to say that the humble person abdicates all responsibility. They know what they can do, and they do it. And they know what they can not do, and they do not beat themselves up for not being able to do it.
Humility is also freedom from the fear of what others might think, and this is more significant than one might at first imagine. Worrying about what others might think is something we associate with neurotic 50s housewives or anxiously respectable Victorians, but in reality, that fear has caused uncountable deaths.
Nations have gone to war for fear of what others might think. Parents have been known to kill their own child for fear of what others might think. Others kill themselves because they cannot bear to face what others may be thinking of them. Every time an elected politician makes a popular decision that is poor policy, the fear of what others might think has struck another blow.
In ways great and small, the fear of what others might think subtly dominates many lives. People might alter their appearance – makeup, shaving, clothing, high heels, plastic surgery – because of the fear of what others might think. People buy things they can’t afford, from handbags to houses further up the property ladder, because of the fear of what others might think.
People avoid doing the things which they genuinely enjoy, because of the fear of what others might think. People avoid doing the things which they believe to be right, because of the fear of what others might think. People put endless effort into creating a favourable image of themselves, then live in fear of being found out – because of the fear of what others might think.
The humble person has no anxiety about their image, because they’re not trying to project one. Kent in King Lear speaks for the humble when he says “I do profess to be no less than I seem.” What you see is what you get, with the humble person.
Humble people, as I remarked earlier, don’t need to tell you they’re humble. Firstly, because their actions and attitudes speak for themselves; and secondly, because they don’t need you to see them a certain way. They are free from the need for others’ validation, and free from the fear of their condemnation.
The humble know themselves, and are not afraid to be known. They’re not trying to persuade you that they’re better than they are – though they may well be aspiring to become better – and they’re not troubled by suggestions that they’re worse than they are.
Humility is freedom. Not an easily won freedom – we’d all like to be free and well thought of – but freedom all the same. You don’t have to carry the weight of the world. You don’t have to be controlled by the fear of what others might think.
Know thyself. Practice humility. Become free.