Some thoughts on humility

It seems to me, at least based on the research I did about what we know and can speculate about early human groups, that while life back in the era long before farming and towns and then cities it is likely that small groups could find sufficient food – especially if living along a seashore – without working every hour of every day, leaving time for play, stories, art, and wonder, it is also the case that during nearly all of those years – any time longer than 12,000 years ago when all the great animals went extinct – humans shared their homes with large, dangerous, and carnivorous beasts: dire wolves, saber tooth cats, huge jackals and hyenas, short face bear, and cave lions, suggesting also that those small human groups had to find safe refuges to raise their young and often – perhaps nearly always – were wiped out, to a person. In that time humans were not the apex predator as they later became. Plus, and this seems often overlooked, there were huge climate shifts, glaciations, meteors striking the earth, eruptions, floods, fires, earthquakes, and tsunamis, all bringing devastation, change, and death – natural forces too great to imagine or comprehend.

It is no wonder, then, such groups were surely conservative, careful, and cautious about their actions and decisions, and even more the case that they must have been truly humble, as in, accepting their smallness in the world around them, their weakness, their ignorance about what was going on.

In fact I would imagine that, along with the ability to tell stories and carry on culture and learning, the need for humility in all things was paramount for survival. Some have written that humility – the placing of one self subordinate to other forces, the awareness of lack of knowledge and understanding, and the value of memory and ancient truth – is what creates wisdom. It is no wonder, then, that elders and ancient members of a group or tribe were revered, just as, because of the precariousness of life, attitudes were formed with a view three, five, even ten generations down the road. I have tried in my Strong Heart Series to describe such a possible culture, which still contains all the human behaviors of greed, lust, envy, and so on, and sought in my tales to suggest that the required humility of those early ages must be brought forward to the present day as a means to offset many current toxic behaviors and values.

As long as there has been writing there have been people writing of humility, in different guises, and with different definitions. Anna Katherina Schaeffer, PhD, provides an excellent summary of the history of humility:

Humility is a core value in many ancient ethical and theological frameworks. The Confucian form of humility, for example, is profoundly other oriented in spirit, consistently valuing the social good over the satisfaction of our individual aspirations. In this ancient Chinese form, humility can significantly enhance social cohesion and our sense of belonging.

The Greek philosopher Socrates held that wisdom is, above all, knowing what we don’t know. He taught an intellectual form of humility that freely acknowledges the gaps in our knowledge and that humbly seeks to address our blind spots.

Aristotle understood humility as a moral virtue, sandwiched between the vices of arrogance and moral weakness. Like Socrates, he believed that humility must include accurate self-knowledge and a generous acknowledgment of the qualities of others that avoids distortion and extremes.

An accurate understanding of our strengths and weaknesses is still a core feature of current definitions of humility.
Christian humility is linked to self-abnegation, shame, and sin and may therefore not be to everyone’s taste. However, the ancient theologians can still help us to avoid arrogance and pretentiousness. They remind us that we are members of a species that is far from perfect and urge us to be mindful of the limited role we each have to play in the fate of humanity as a whole.

Through the centuries, the importance of humility as a moral character virtue has faded. However, psychological studies of humility have surged in the last two decades (Worthington, Davis, & Hook, 2017). This renewed interest in humility is, in no small part, a counter-reaction to what the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (2009), have described as our “age of entitlement.

Today, self-realization and enhancing our self-worth are our highest aspirations. Precisely because it provides an antidote to many worrying tendencies of our age, such as arrogance, greed, and self-centeredness (all of which also have devastating consequences for our democracies and our planet), humility is experiencing a much-needed revival.

Author: Charlie Sheldon

Charlie Sheldon studied at Yale University (American Studies) and the University of Massachusetts (Master’s Degree in Wildlife Biology and Resource Management). He then went to sea as a commercial fisherman off New England, fishing for cod, haddock, lobster, red crab, squid, and swordfish. Active in the fight for the 200-mile Fisheries Conservation Zone, he later worked as a consultant for Fishery Management Councils, developing fishery management plans and conducting gear development projects to develop more selective fisheries. He spent 28 years working for seaports (New York, Seattle, and Bellingham) as a project and construction manager and later as an executive. In addition to overseeing habitat cleanup projects, he worked with Puget Sound Tribes establish a system whereby tribal fishing could coexist with commercial shipping in Seattle Harbor and Elliot Bay. Then, nearly ancient, he returned to sea, shipping out with the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific as an Ordinary Seaman, Able Bodied Seaman, and Bosun. Starting with commercial container vessels, on the New York to Singapore run, he finished his career aboard naval ships for Military Sealift Command. His last gig was as bosun aboard USNS Shughart, New Orleans to New York, in 2016. Always a writer, he published Fat Chance with Felony and Mayhem Press in 2005. He began working on ideas for Strong Heart long, long ago and began serious research in 2010. These days he hikes in the Olympics whenever he can, cooks for his wife, and continues to write tales in Ballard, Washington.

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