For years, every morning at five a.m. my mother-in-law, Rena Canipe, would crawl out of bed and awaken her husband Clyde. Donning track suits, they would climb into their old Volkswagen bus and head to the mall near their home in Lake Park, Florida. There they’d meet a grocery store manager who was waiting for them with day-old food that was ready for the trash. Rena had convinced this manager that the food could be put to much better use feeding shut-ins who had trouble getting to the store.
If you have watched Rena in action for decades, as I have, you realize that she has helped thousands of people—not just through food delivery, but through her work with the Girl Scouts, at church, and through acquaintances as well. Yet in the 35 years I’ve known her, she has never discussed her efforts with me. She has served in silence. “I’ve never done anything important in my life,” Rena once told me.
What do we make of this statement? Is this the product of poor self-esteem? Is this modesty—or worse, false modesty? Is Rena merely a kind and altruistic person? How do we interpret the life of this woman and her contributions to a better life for others? In struggling with these questions, we see some of the many paradoxes of humility.
Most people think of humility as a personal psychological strength. But according to research, humility is not equally valued in all people. People say they most value humility within religious seekers; the same people do not value humility quite as much when it is shown in a close partner or close friend. And studies show that Americans are least accepting of humility in leaders, yet even here they seem divided. Some people surveyed say they want their leaders to have outspoken confidence, bordering on arrogance; others say they prefer for their leaders to have almost saintly humility.
So, is humility a virtue? Well, it depends on who you ask.
At a time when more and more people seem to be motivated by entitlement and narcissism—and even seem to admire those qualities in others—we need an antidote to the social problems that come with isolation and arrogance.
We need humility, but how can we cultivate it? A growing body of research on humility might be able to help us be more humble—but it also suggests that there are limits to what science can tell us about humility.
Scientists distrust a self-report of humility—for good reason. Would you buy a book entitled, How I Achieved Perfect Humility? Ah, there’s the problem. If a man tells you how humble he is, you’d probably take his opinion with a grain of salt. On the other hand, he might be giving a straightforward and honest self-assessment.
Wade Rowatt and his fellow researchers at Baylor University took a different approach in their study of humility. The researchers compared people’s perceptions of themselves with their perceptions of others, assuming most people would show a self-serving bias. Rowatt’s study participants, students at Baylor (a Baptist university), estimated the degree to which they, and others, followed the Ten Commandments. Most students believed they followed the commandments better than did other Baylor students. But the less they saw themselves as better than others, the higher their humility rating on Rowatt’s scale.
But were they necessarily more humble? Maybe some people actually did follow the commandments better than others, seeming to indicate low humility when they were really just accurately reporting their behavior. Again, we see how hard it is to identify humility.
Perhaps humility most often shows up as unselfish service on behalf of others. The former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once said, “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.” Perhaps true humility involves an absence of arrogance, pride, and narcissistic entitlement. It incorporates honesty with self and sensitive honesty with others (not presuming to give others unwanted or unhelpful—though honest—feedback). As a virtue it can accomplish great things, for individuals and society as a whole.
Rena Canipe would be genuinely embarrassed if she knew that I was writing about her. She did not spend a lifetime helping others out of a sense of poor self-esteem. She knows she has helped people, yet she has not wasted her time thinking about self-importance or trying to manipulate others to admire her. She is modest but does not convey false modesty. She sees her accomplishments as important—particularly to the people whose needs were being met—but not important in the grand scheme of things. This is the essence of humility. Science can seek to describe it—and perhaps fail, more often than not—but only a person like Rena can practice and embody it. We can best learn from her example.