The Hunt for Humility

An English teacher of mine, at some point in my schooling, asked our class a great question – “what is the definition of irony?”  She asked this in follow up after checking to see if we all understood what irony was, and the whole class had nodded yes, we did understand.  And yet when she posed this question, none of us could come up with a definition of irony in the moment.  We could name ironic moments or experiences, but we couldn’t actually come up with a workable definition.  Her point to us was that we don’t truly know what a word means until we can articulate its definition.  And I’ll admit, I still can’t define irony off the top of my head – I had to go look its meaning up again just now.  My teacher’s question though returned to me as I’ve been thinking about this October’s theme of Humility – what does humility actually mean?

I’m not the only one to struggle with this question.  In the introduction to his book, Humility: The Quite Virtue, Everett L. Worthington, Jr. notes: “writing a book on humility is fraught with difficulties… I cannot tell you a definitive description of humility revealed by science… I can only invite you to consider people you know.  Who are your heroes of humility?”  He suggests that instead of a definition, the best way to understand humility is to list the characteristics of people you know who you think are humble.

Figuring it was worth a shot, I tried Worthington’s exercise… and it didn’t really give me any concrete results.  And so with my English teacher’s admonition ringing in my head, I turned to the old standby: the dictionary.  In fact, I checked several dictionaries – oh the joys of the internet – and I have to say, I’m not a fan of the most of the dictionaries’ primary definitions, which describe humility in the negative.  Merriam-Webster states that humility means “not thinking of yourself as better than other people.”  And just like when we define ourselves as Unitarian Universalists by what we don’t believe – “you don’t have to believe in god, we generally don’t believe Jesus was the literal son of god” – defining humility in the negative is not very satisfying.  I find it far more preferable to define Unitarian Universalism in the positive: we offer both freedom of belief, as well as belief in relating to each other with love, justice, equality and inclusivity. And so I wonder: what’s a good, positive definition of humility?

Because even setting aside the positive-versus-negative semantic, I’ not a fan of the content of Merriam-Webster’s definition.  Not thinking of ourselves as better than others… meaning thinking of ourselves as lower or worse than others?  That doesn’t feel like a good definition for something I consider a virtue.  Worthington does suggest in a subsequent chapter of his book that one quality of humility is focusing on others instead of ourselves, but that doesn’t quite resonate for me.  In Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, Edgar H. Schein suggests that humility is all about social position and the choices we are faced with when operating from higher or lower social positions, and that resonates for me even less.

After further reflection, the one characteristic I could identify when looking at my heroes of humility was that none of them did what they did out of a need for outside praise or approval.  Whether it was their job as a chaplain supervisor, public service on the board of trustees of a local library, or serving as a teacher to children – none of my heroes of humility did what they did out of need, none of them did it seeking validation or worthiness from the outside.  They did what they did because it was the right thing to do.

Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do – that’s my working definition of humility for now, but I wonder: what’s your definition? Who would you consider your heroes of humility?  And do they share common characteristics that might provide a more distinct definition for humility?  One of the joys of Unitarian Universalism to me is having my own understanding altered or deepened when other people share their beliefs and experiences.  As we continue onwards this month with our shared free and responsible search for truth and meaning, I look forward to further exploring the idea and importance of humility with you, and to being enriched by your wisdom.

See you in church!

peace, love and blessings,

Rev. Seth