Humility from a Humanist perspective

For a Humanist, humility is an important part of our approach to happiness. And it has several different uses and dimensions.

Intellectual Humility

We are quick to admit we might be wrong and we are actually self-critical about our own judgements. We do this because we understand that to do and be good our moral reasoning has to be good. And if we make a mistake in our thinking, our moral reasoning will be as flawed as our thinking is. To us, it is better to correct your mistakes than to perpetuate them and we can only do that if we are willing to admit we were wrong.

Interpersonal Humility

We are incapable of really understanding what other people tell us. Everything we know and learn is learned through a distorted lens that is our perception. We make assumptions about other people’s motivations all the time and we are almost always wrong because we base those assumptions on how we are and how we feel and other people aren’t us.

Being interpersonally humble means acknowledging that other people are real and that they don’t have the same experiences as we do but that doesn’t make them any less valid. This particular form of humility helps us to improve our interpersonal relationships and have deeper more meaningful relationships because they aren’t built on our needs and wants, they are more collaborative. This is only possible when you don’t make it all about you all the time.

Interpersonal humility also helps us to be more persuasive with others because of pushing our ideas about what the other person is thinking down other people’s throats, we take the time to learn what it is they actually think and how they are morally motivated and we respond to that reality instead of our assumptions.

Aspirational Humility

Being aware of how insignificant we are on a universal scare also induces a really fabulous form of humility. To quote the Animaniacs – “it’s a great big universe and we’re all really puny.” Our life spans are nothing. We are only alive for a short period of time. Most of the universe existed without us and when we die the universe will continue without us. We aren’t important. At all. Whatever drama you have going on right now, ultimately doesn’t matter. At all. No one is going to remember what was so important to you in a year or 10 years or after you die. Heck, you won’t even be remembered except by some close friends and relatives and when they die, your descendants aren’t likely to remember or think of you. I mean think about it. Do you know who your great great great grandmother was – and what her humor was like and how her food tasted and what she was afraid of?  No. You don’t. Because you didn’t know her.

While a lot of people consider this knowledge of the ultimate futility of their existence to be depressing, for Humanists, it’s freeing. We don’t have to get all worked up about here and now problems and dramas. We can take a step back, remember how silly we are being for being worked up about nothing and then carry on with figuring out how best to fix the problem in the meantime.  It turns out that being able to emotionally distance yourself from your gut emotional reaction really helps you solve problems more effectively.

The other thing aspirational humility does is it reminds us that what is going on here and now matters. We don’t have all the time in the world. We have the limited time we are alive. And if we don’t do what needs to be done now, we aren’t doing it. As Phil Ochs once wrote, “I won’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone, so I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”  Every moment is precious. This is the one life we get. We better not waste it.

It’s this last bit that makes the most difference. In the big scheme of things what we do doesn’t really matter. But it matters now and we can choose to live our lives in a way that benefits ourselves and others, or we can give in to despair and hedonism. Aspirational humility teaches us that the struggle to make things better and to make the world better is what matters. It’s what gives our lives meaning and purpose and striving to make the world a better place for ourselves and our fellow humans is what, ultimately brings us happiness.

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