Know Your Limits

Image: Phaitoon /

I am getting ready to publish a 6 week humanist life skills course. It will cover issues like ethics, responsibility, compassion and critical thinking. I have been teaching this course for a while now and on the last day of my most recent class, one of my students asked about how humanists felt about humility.   I answered that humanists think being humble as an important part of our practice as humanists.  After all, we can never be sure we are right, even with the best of information and we would rather find out we are wrong that continue on in a delusion that we were right.

This got me thinking  though, part of what I like about my class is that every unit of the class builds upon the last. We spend an hour on ethics only to conclude that as strong as humanists ethics are, they are limited by our ability to think well. So the next week we spend an hour talking about the hows and whys of critical thinking, only to realize that it doesn’t matter how well we think, we are always going to be a, to a certain extent, not completely right so we need to temper our thinking with compassion to ensure that we are humble in our conclusions. Then we spend an hour talking about compassion only to realize that as important as compassion is, you will get yourself into trouble if you don’t temper your compassion with responsibility. 

All the major aspects of the Humanist philosophy, in and of themselves, are not sufficient on their own to help you lead a happy and fulfilling life. All are limited in their usefulness.  To be effective, we need to accept our limits and find ways to shore up the limitations in our ethical system and our critical thinking methods and to make sure our compassion is wielded responsibility and that we don’t allow our responsibilities to overwhelm us. In other words, ethics, compassion, reason and responsibility work best when used together because they shore up the limitations in each of the individual elements.

The beauty of Humanism is precisely that it encourages to be realistic and therefore humble. We don’t pretend to know any great truths. We are just trying to do the best we can given the inherent limits places on us by our knowledge and our nature. 

So the next time you are beating yourself up for not being perfect. Take solace in the fact that knowing and accepting your limitations is actually a good thing. 

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