The default psychological setting for human beings is an unavoidable self-centeredness. We each stand at the center of our own thoughts, feelings and needs, and thus experience them in a way that we cannot experience the thoughts, feelings and needs of others.
As writer David Foster Wallace put it in a 2005 commencement address:
“ … Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence … it’s pretty much the same for all of us.”
This self-centeredness comes as a part of the packaging – a natural part of our human experience. Yet it isn’t hard to see how it can be problematic. Take a step back from your own life to take in the whole of humanity, and you can see how this self-focus might easily distort your ethical sensibilities, leading you to overinflate the value and importance of certain lives over others and the “rightness” of your values and way of life over those of others.
You can also see how it might similarly interfere with your ability to change your beliefs in pursuit of the truth – it’s hard to let go of false beliefs when they feel true because you believe them. It’s hard to imagine things from perspectives that are not your own. It’s hard to accept that you are limited and fallible, prone to error.
This is where humility comes in.
When my colleagues and I first started studying humility more than a decade ago, I didn’t really think it would amount to much. It struck me as a relatively uninteresting virtue – if even a virtue at all. Nothing like courage, compassion or generosity – virtues that arguably play critical roles in the effort to live an admirable life.
But the more time I’ve spent with humility, the more I’ve come to appreciate it. And now, I see it as the most foundational virtue of them all.
You’re the star of your own life
When I’m hungry, it’s a compelling, full-body experience – complete with a gurgling stomach, an urge to consume food and so on. But when other people are hungry, I don’t experience any of this. I might hear someone’s stomach rumble, I might notice that they look peckish, but I don’t experience their hunger in the way I experience my own.
My hunger is more attention-grabbing and motivating – more urgent – to me. If someone I care about is hungry, then I might be motivated to ignore my own hunger and focus instead on theirs, but this takes an effort and self-control that ignoring their hunger and focusing instead on my own does not.
I experience my emotions. I can only react to yours. I hear my own thoughts. I can only infer yours. You may decide to share them with me, though I still won’t know if what you’ve shared has been edited.
My values, beliefs and goals feel more compelling, true and worthwhile, simply because they are mine. They come with a sort of gravitational force that makes them hard to reject or let go. They are all wrapped up and woven into the life that I am living – my life.
Humility tempers self-centeredness
In other words, our natural self-centeredness is a source of two kinds of distortion. It interferes with our ability to accurately perceive and interpret objective reality – the world as it really is. And it messes with our ability to appreciate the ethical worth of others.
Humility functions as a corrective to this self-centeredness.
My colleagues and I define humility as a state of awareness in which both these distortions are quieted, even if only temporarily. Or, as other scholars have put it, humility involves “hypo-egoic” states – a quieting of the self. It results in a reduction in one’s hyperfocus on the self, allowing you to shift more of your focus outward.
In other words, humility reduces the gravitational pull of your values, beliefs and goals, so you can hold them more loosely. You become more able to accurately evaluate them, more open to revision, more accepting of and less threatened by your fallibility and imperfection. It no longer feels catastrophic to be wrong, and it’s less important to be right.
Humility also reduces the immediacy of your own feelings, needs and goals, creating space for the importance of others’ to enter in. It quiets the “centeredness” enough for you to better experience your interdependency and connection to others. We all bring parts of the puzzle of human experience to the table. We all have something to offer.
Humility supports all the virtues
And this corrective function is why I now consider humility foundational to other intellectual and moral virtues.
Self-centeredness is a force that can interfere with one’s ability to exercise virtues appropriately. It’s hard to be appropriately open-minded and curious, for example, when the ideas being presented threaten or stand in conflict to your own, implying you’ve been mistaken. It’s hard to be compassionate, generous or courageous when your perception is distorted, when your own beliefs and needs weigh more heavily than those of others. And this makes quieting this distortion critical.
When considering who should benefit from your time, energy and resources, humility is necessary to bring the needs of others clearly into view. It quiets the incessant push and pull of your own desires and needs, facilitating and deepening your capacity for patience, honesty, generosity, compassion and so on.
This is not to say that humility is all about focusing on others and not yourself. It is also not about stepping back from your values, beliefs or needs when it is appropriate for you to assert them. As the Mussar Jewish ethical movement teaches, humility is about occupying the right amount of space, the space necessary for the situation – not less, not more.
In other words, humility serves as the foundation of our ability to thrive, both as individuals and together in human society.