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Can Humility Change the World?

Humility has taken a bad rap in recent years. That's a tragedy when you consider how this misunderstood virtue could bring peace to our souls and change to our world.
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Humility has taken a bad rap in recent years. That's a tragedy when you consider how this misunderstood virtue could bring peace to our souls and change to our world.

For many people, the word humility has come to signify humiliation or self-derogation. Even the dictionary enshrines such definitions. As an adjective, humble can mean "insignificant, unpretentious." As a verb, it can signify "to destroy the power, independence, or prestige of." This brand of humility is hardly useful in a society where the spoils go to the arrogant and powerful.

There is, however, a better way to think about humility, and it can release all kinds of potential within us. In this definition, humility is complete clarity about our individual selves and our place in the universe. As my monastery's Rule for Associates puts it, "Humility is not self-denigration; it is honest appraisal. We have gifts and deficiencies, as does everyone else."

When I think about humility in this context, I reduce it to two basic claims:

  1. I'm only one person.
  2. I am one person.

The first claim confronts us with some stark realities. There are roughly 7 billion people on the planet. That makes me one-seven-billionth of the human race -- pretty tiny on almost any scale. As if that weren't enough, I live in the face of social megatrends and powerful interests far beyond my control. All by myself, for instance, I cannot make the U.S. government do what I want, any more than I can make it rain.

Ironically, this bleak view may make for a healthier self-image in two ways. First, it is hard to maintain any sense of arrogance -- overestimating your value or capabilities beyond all reality -- when you cast a cold eye on your place in the universe. Second, "I'm only one person" liberates the over-responsible from taking on too much.

It's not hard, of course, to take "I'm only one person" too far, and that leads us straight into despair. If I'm only one person, why try to change anything? Why put out any effort?

That's the point of the other humility claim: "I am one person." Its bold affirmation thwarts the despair and gives us the power to do what we can. By embracing "I am one person," I realize that I have exactly one person's gifts, talents and limitations. I can make exactly one person's contribution to the world. Once I put my gifts to use, I discover they can make a difference, not just in the world but in my soul as well. Few things are more validating than the affirmation of some person or charity that needs precisely what you have to offer.

Moreover, by clarifying our value and our limitations, "I am one person" opens our eyes to the importance of we. Once we start pitching in and making a difference, we come up against the limits of our individual abilities. In the process, we grasp that we can accomplish even more by wedding our talents to those of others. The tasks too intimidating for "only one person" suddenly look doable. We begin to band together and do them: creating institutional change, making an impact on legislators, joining our groups with other groups to wield even more clout.

That is where it gets interesting.

Imagine that I want to change my state's law on cell phone use while driving. As "only one person," I look at the power of the legislature, the staggering challenge of swaying public opinion, and then I look at little old me -- and despair. But in "I am one person" mode, I look at my gifts and realize I can write. So I write op-ed pieces and letters to legislators.

At the same time, I also know that I cannot spend countless hours lobbying those in power. I know next to nothing about recruiting volunteers. In other words, I can't do this by myself. So I try to find groups who are concerned about the law as well. Perhaps in their midst is a community organizer who knows how to rally the troops, and a former congressional aide who knows how to get through to elected officials. All of a sudden, with each of us doing what he or she does best, we have impact.

There is also a personal benefit to this kind of humility. Once we learn what we can and cannot do -- where to wield our strengths (and our schedule) to greatest effect -- we can say no to everything that doesn't fit. Our lives gain more balance and our efforts more chance of success. Our souls come to peace and contentment.

Arrogance and the raw exercise of power haven't gotten us very far, either personally or collectively. Humility might do better. Perhaps we should give it a try.