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The Conflicting Meanings of Humility

Is being humble a virtue?

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

I am conflicted by the meaning of the word humble. My youngest daughter has always been a natural athlete. She played multiple sports in high school, including soccer, basketball, and several events in track & field. In college, she played competitive soccer. Any form of skiing she has mastered from water skiing, downhill skiing, back-country skiing, and lately she picked up skate skiing. She competes in triathlons and places! All her life she has excelled in athletics, although academics did not come as easily. At her senior basketball award ceremony, she won both the Best Defensive Player and Best Offensive Player awards.

You may have thought this would elate her, but she was absolutely humiliated. I remember her coming home from the ceremony that night without saying a word. I did not understand why she was upset. I knew she never enjoyed getting too much attention for her athletic abilities. She wanted to fit in and not be considered superior to her teammates. She worked hard and deserved these accolades but was not comfortable in receiving them.

I believe the primary reason she was so conflicted with getting two of the top basketball awards, is that basketball is a team sport and an award that the coach determines. As far as the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award that year, although it might have made more sense for her to receive just that one, it was awarded to one of her friends and teammate. This award ceremony was different. She received many awards and placements in the top three in track & field that season, but track & field is more of an individual sport and also, there is no subjective choice. Everything is measured in distance and time. It is clear-cut. True, there are stats in basketball, too, but even with that, the coach could select who she wanted to receive them. To get both these basketball awards did not feel right to my daughter, even if the stats said she earned them.

To me, this is an example of a humble person. To me, this is a positive attribute. I believe it shows tremendous inner strength and an example of someone who values the importance of team efforts. It is an example of how humbleness overcomes public knowledge of accomplishments when it means taking away from someone else. Internal satisfaction was sufficient, and one award was enough.

Humble and humility come from the same root word, “humilis.” Humilis is Latin for “low or close to the ground.” Humble is an adjective, so it is used to describe someone, whereas humility is a noun. They both basically mean the same thing. According to Miriam Webster, the word humble as an adjective means not proud or arrogant and having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience. It states that it means low in rank, importance, status quality, and lowly. But then, it also states meanings as courteously and respectfully such as used in chat speak, or an acronym we commonly use texting, IMHO (in my humble opinion). Respectful is a good quality, but subservient and submissive brings up negative connotations.

Do I really want my daughters to be subservient and submissive? I think today where we are more aware of groups of people that have been suppressed and not treated equally, and we have heightened emotion and intensity against submissiveness and being subservient. Related, humbled or humbling as a verb means lower in condition, importance, or dignity. It means to destroy independence, power, or will.

Wow, I want my daughters to be independent and strong. No wonder I am so conflicted.

Who are good examples of being humble? A person who is still living at the time of this writing who I consider humble and well known is Jimmy Carter. His work with Habitat for Humanity even into his mid-90s is admirable, commendable, and humbling. He had been the president of the United States but has no shame carrying a hammer, nails and physically working to build homes to help others. Even shortly after falling and incurring a head injury, he was back to work with bruises and a patch on his head!

Jesus also comes to mind. Jesus was birthed in a stable with his bed an animal’s trough. He associated with the poor, sick, needy, and mingled with prostitutes. He did not consider himself above any of these people. He even washed the feet of his disciples, displaying humility and servanthood. In fact, some practice today the washing of feet which is called the Ordinance of Foot-Washing or no surprise, the Ordinance of Humility.

A woman that comes to mind as being humble is Mother Teresa. She was dedicated for almost 50 years to caring for those destitute and dying in a slum. She humbly took this on and, as a result, was a positive example in creating this kind of compassion exhibited by others around the world.

Image from 123RF

Is expressing humility a sign of weakness? What acts of humility can you perform with a child to teach them compassion and respect for humanity? The people mentioned above performed amazing acts of humility.

Other acts of humility can include cleaning up other people’s garbage to help beautify our world and keep it a healthy place to live in. Children can easily help with this. Other acts of humility are helping a sick person, including the humbling acts of cleaning them up while still attempting to maintain their dignity. A child can help in a food kitchen with the family and interact with people who do not have as much as they do. A child might give up his spot in the lunch line to someone who has a greater need or urgency, whatever the need may be. Letting them take cuts in line without knowing the reason is even more commendable.

This is being humble, not selfish or self-centered. Respectfully and with sensitivity commend that behavior as a good example to other children, knowing that the child exhibiting such humbleness may feel uncomfortable receiving accolades in doing so.

Speaking of lines, how have you responded to heavy traffic in allowing a person in a merge line? Why do some people have this powerful need to be ahead of the pack first, and not willing to give up their position even if it means risking the safety of all those around in not doing so?

How do we teach humility, especially to our daughters, and not have them feel subservient or oppressed?

To me, a person who exercises genuine humbleness is showing great strength. They can express confidence in themselves without bragging. They lead by example in caring and cultivating compassion in humankind. They still exert their strengths and live out their lives to the fullest, excelling over many in their accomplishments. They accept their strengths, and their limitations without being defensive, judgmental, or condescending.

I believe my youngest daughter as a high schooler was experiencing genuine humbleness in that basketball award ceremony incident.

February 22 each year is Be Humble Day. I consider being humble a virtue if exercised with strength, integrity, and intention.

What do you think? Is humility a virtue or a weakness?

What acts of humility do you respect and adhere to?

What activities can you do with a child to teach them humility and not lose their dignity.

Sonja Wendt

Enhancing children’s sensitivity in human interactions one story at a time.

Author provided image

©2021 sonjalangewendt



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Sonja Wendt

Sonja Wendt

Award-winning author for children’s book series Cultivating Compassion in Children. Get a gardening list of how to grow compassionate children at