Ancient philosophers and poets knew humility was important. Socrates, the Greek philosopher, checked out all the men who were known to be wise, and he concluded that he was the wisest of all because “I know what I do not know.” Of one reputed wise man, he said, “he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance.”
Confucius said, “I have traveled far and wide and have yet to meet a man who could bring home the judgment against himself.” Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Both of these ancients pointed to self-objectivity, which requires humility, as a cornerstone of mental health.
A recent study by Toni C. Antonucci and three colleagues at the University of Michigan reinforced this ancient belief. The authors found that humility was not only an important building block for relationships, but they also asserted in an article in The Conversation, an online journal, that “one trait in particular – humility – is an important indicator of successful relationships.”
In the study, they asked 284 couples from the Detroit metropolitan area questions that were designed to indicate their humility. Specifically, they asked three questions. How humble are you? How humble is your partner? How likely are you to forgive your partner if he or she does something that is hurtful, like insulting you? Asking these questions not only helped the researchers find out who was humble and who was not, but also to find the relationship between humility and forgiveness.
“We found that people who felt their partner or spouse was humble were more likely to forgive them following a hurtful situation,” the authors note. “This wasn’t true, however, of those who felt their partner or spouse was arrogant. Many of our respondents with arrogant partners indicated that because their partners were less likely to admit to any personal failings, they were less likely to forgive them.”
Unfortunately, in American culture today, humility is not a trait that is particularly valued. Self-objectivity and open-mindedness are not attitudes that are often talked about. Instead, we hear slogans about being empowered, asserting one’s human rights, making America great again, and standing up for oneself. Indeed we even shun humility, viewing it as a weakness.
In doing couples therapy, I have found that the main block to successful treatment often has to do with one or both members of the couple being caught up in the need to be right. This need to be right, and to not want to ever admit being wrong is associated with arrogance. The more arrogant a person is, the more that person needs to be right and to believe all others are wrong. An arrogant person is less able to forgive a partner for being wrong, for the arrogant person never admits to any self-wrong and therefore can’t tolerate wrong in another.
Arrogant persons not only believes they are always right, but also believe their religious, political or ethnic groups are right, while often harboring a deeply held conviction that those outside their group are wrong. This need to be right invariably engenders personal and cultural strife. If you have the attitude that you’re right and others are wrong this will provoke conflict, since those who you deem wrong will be offended and become defensive. Humility does not provoke conflict, but rather cooperation. Arrogance breeds arrogance, while humility breeds humility and leads to constructive communication, understanding and peace.
The bottom line is that healthy humility (as opposed to neurotic self-effacement) allows you to see yourself and others realistically. We need to be in touch with reality in order to make accurate assessments of the world and our participation in it. When people are humble and in touch with reality, they can make adjustments and compromises that foster the resolution of problems. As such, healthy humility is a feature of healthy self-esteem.
Throughout history, one can see that the more arrogant a culture became, the less it was able to be humble and the less it was able to make the adjustments that would enable it to survive. Examples of this are the ancient Greek and Roman Empires, which both declined as their cultural arrogance increased and humility decreased. “Pride goeth before a fall,” goes the famous saying.
Can we as individuals and as a culture return to the values of humility and objectivity that made our culture healthy and vital?