“Humble” is one of those words that have contradictory meanings in modern use. For some the word means not-pretentious, unassuming, not proud or arrogant, and modest, certainly praiseworthy traits. But for many the word suggests lower, degraded, trifling, not respectable, and often is found synonymous with chameleon like behavior or low character.
Sadly, for me the word “humble” will often be associated with the Charles Dickens character, Uriah Heep in his novel David Copperfield. If you recall, Heep is one of the main antagonists of the novel… a truly despicable person who constantly asserts he is a “umble” man. His character is notable for his cloying humility, obsequiousness, and insincerity, making frequent references to his own “‘umbleness”. His name has become synonymous with sycophancy.
Sandro Botticelli’s illustration of Dante’s Inferno shows insincere flatterers and sycophants groveling in excrement in the second pit of the eighth circle. Gustav Dore, William Blake, and Salvador Dali also illustrated the fate of sinners and flatterers in the Inferno.
With such unsavory examples it was difficult for me to admire a “humble” man, and then as a young man I had my own personal lesson in humility. My father was one of those people who always seemed to fade into the background. He was quiet, unpretentious, and rarely expressed strong opinions. Of course, he was also kind, faithful, honest, and hard-working, but these qualities were not immediately apparent. Indeed, I recall one college friend who observed on visiting my family, “your father is the meekest man I ever met.”
When my father died, a number of people at his funeral approached me to reflect on his life. One person revealed my father supported him financially when he was in need. Another testified my father counseled he and his wife when their marriage was in trouble, others testified to his work as a peacemaker…and so on. I was in my 20s, yet I had no idea of this side of his life. Suddenly, “meek” and “humble” became words completely transformed in my understanding, and I also learned what it was to feel humble myself.
Meekness has sometimes been contrasted with humility or humbleness as referring to behavior toward others, whereas humility refers to one’s attitude about oneself. Thus, the two qualities are interwoven. A meek person will restrain one’s own power or control in order for others to thrive, achieve, and obtain recognition.
In situations which require conciliation, compromise, and cooperation, peace and resolution are more likely to be achieved when participants acknowledge their own limitations of understanding and righteousness (activating humility) and the often-unacknowledged point of view of others (apply meekness). If even one person in an argument can apply these character traits, it is much more likely that the other will respond favorably, and conflict can be avoided.
So how can you learn to be humble/meek? You can start by appreciating others:
- Appreciate and acknowledge the talents and qualities of others,
- Avoid comparing yourself to others, don’t brag,
- Be prepared to defer to other’s judgement,
- Remain teachable,
- Go last,
- Compliment others,
- Don’t take all the credit,
- Accept your own limitations,
- Be prepared to make mistakes, and
- Admit your mistakes and apologize.
In the Christian Bible, Matthew 5.9, one finds the third and seventh of the Beatitudes:
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
These seem worthy rewards.
Bob Meroney is an Emeritus Professor of Fluid Mechanics and Wind Engineering with a long career at Colorado State University. He has been an active member of the Fort Collins Rotary Club and regularly researches a range of topics on modern life, issues and politics that serve to spark deeper conversations among friends and colleagues.
 Sycophancy is flattery that is excessive and servile, a bootlicker, fawning, groveling, and kowtowing in nature.
 In Dante’s Inferno the eighth circle contains all those who commit fraud against humanity, and the second pit is filled with stinking filth where those guilty of flattery are plunged.