Is Humility a Source of Strength?
by David Gibson
What springs to mind when you hear the word “humility”? Some may imagine that truly humble people never speak up, never want to be seen – that they shrink into the woodwork, so to speak.
The thought might not come to mind at all that humility can foster respect within a marriage and enhance relationships of all kinds, including those between parents and children.
I’ve just read a thought-provoking essay on humility in a 2012 book titled “The Messy Quest for Meaning” (Sorin Books). Its Catholic author, Stephen Martin, is a North Carolina writer.
Humility is not meant to create “meek, retreating people” who firmly believe they are worthless, Martin stresses. He proposes that authentic humility will only strengthen people.
Martin considers humility “absolutely essential” for discovering and embracing our callings in life. At the same time, he suggests that growing in humility means “learning to accept where our influence ends and God’s begins.”
All of us – spouses, parents, friends, those in the workplace — are prone “to a lack of humility,” Martin indicates. But he believes “a well-honed sense of humility” that prompts us to acknowledge our “weaknesses and flaws” makes a big difference in life.
One great temptation is to become so comfortable with our own voices that we are unable to hear or appreciate what others have to say. Obviously, this can lead to problems in a marriage, with one or both spouses unwilling to listen carefully to the other’s insights and concerns.
Martin recognizes this temptation. “It’s comforting to hole up in an echo chamber that reaffirms the rightness of our own ideas, shields us from threats and rarely challenges us to think or act in new ways,” he writes. That will not, however, “do much at all for our sense of humility.”
Honest Approach to Reality
“The Messy Quest for Meaning” is not about marriage per se. It directs attention to vocations of various kinds. It should be noted, though, that echoes of Martin’s thinking on humility are heard frequently in discussions of marriage.
Sometimes those discussions accent the need of spouses to acknowledge that they are imperfect, that neither of them is called to make all the big decisions alone and that a disagreement need not create a battle to be “won” by just one of them.
Laurie Puhn described the humble wife or husband in “Fight Less, Love More” (Rodale Books, 2010). When humility characterizes you as a spouse, “you don’t think you have all the answers; in fact, you know you don’t,” she wrote.
Humility motivates a wife and husband to listen to and encourage each other, Puhn said. Moreover, humility’s presence means that each spouse allows new information to alter his or her opinions.
Finally, humble spouses admit when they are wrong and apologize. Puhn said they recognize that an apology “is another opportunity to build a loving connection through tolerance and understanding.”
British Benedictine Abbot Christopher Jamison discussed the dynamics of humility in “Finding Happiness” (Liturgical Press, 2008). He viewed humility as pride’s opposite. While marriage was not his topic, the implications of his thinking for marriage seem obvious.
“We need consciously to remind ourselves not to seek to have everything our own way, to restrain our suspicion of others and to distinguish our own desires from what is good for other people,” Abbot Jamison advised. To do that, he said people must consciously pursue humility.
For him, humility represents “an honest approach to the reality of our own lives and acknowledges that we are not more important than other people.”
Practice for Humility
For Martin, “an invitation to humble ourselves” can be found in “every instant of every day.” For example, “we can resist the temptation to have the last word in a spat with our spouse. We can get dinner on the table when we’d rather be taking a nap.”
But he admits this is not easy.
The problem of pride may partly be that “when we’re skilled at something, whether it’s running a household or putting a ball in a hoop or cutting out tumors, we can become a little too impressed with ourselves,” Martin observes.
Can people practice up on humility? Yes, and Martin recommends doing so much the way people pursue better eating habits or the practice of daily exercise.
One way to practice humility is to “spend time listening to people with whom we don’t agree.” But this can be a jarring experience, Martin points out. It might unsettle some of our assumptions.
Martin suggests starting “right now in our own families” to open ourselves up “to unfamiliar ideas” that we shy away from, suspecting they will make us uncomfortable. He holds that, paradoxically, this can help us grow wiser and stronger.
In the end, humility can strengthen people in their life’s vocations. That is Martin’s point. He thinks that when people grow in humility they may well surprise themselves by discovering they are capable of “far more” than they thought.
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.