Long live humility. At times, I am saddened by my sense that this critical and admirable character trait is fading from our collective experience. Humility is seriously endangered—much like the idea of subtlety. The bellicose, aggressive, self-aggrandizing and attention-seeking folks seem to grab the headlines each day, while those who quietly and courageously do good work and who shy away from the spotlight, are often forgotten.
Humility means “the state of being humble”. Humility means that one is not full of self-importance or pride, but instead, that one has a somewhat circumspect view of oneself and others. Humility requires us to understand and accept our own imperfections so that we are able to cast a more empathetic eye on our fellow citizens. Humility and empathy allow others to show up just as they are, with a sense that they will not be judged too harshly by their neighbors.
Is there perhaps a link between the decline of humility and the weakening of public life? I think so. Humility and public life need to co-exist in order to have safe and open places where civic dialogue can take place. Public life requires us to be self-reflective, and humility allows us to consider that we might just be wrong about that issue we feel so strongly about. Humility allows us to find a messy place in the middle where we can find enough agreement to move ahead in solving a community problem.
The writer C.S. Lewis said it well, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” Public life requires a concern for the common good. The common good is what is shared and beneficial to most members of a specific community, not just for oneself. For example, clean water is a common good. Its protection is important for all members of society, as well as the fish and wildlife. To achieve water protection, we all must be willing to see our role in impacting water quality, and to humbly understand that even though we care and try hard to do what we can, we are not perfect. To humbly admit to our own role in contributing to a problem like water pollution is to take the first step in finding the common good.
Let’s bring the humble and the subtle back to public life. Let’s cut each other some slack when we want to point the finger at someone else. Next time, when I want to believe I have it all figured out and that I uphold a certain standard of behavior, I will try to remember the advice of C.S. Lewis and simply keep it to myself.