The Paradox of Humility

Most people know that humility is beneficial in every way, but maintaining humility is not easy.  Humility is not thinking less about yourself, but recognizing that you can learn more by keeping your cup empty.  When I think about humility, I can’t help but remember Benjamin Franklin, a well-rounded high achiever in art, science, and politics.  He attributed his achievement to a list of thirteen virtues that he lived by.  He created the list when he was twenty, and resolved to live by it all his life.  Here’s the list:

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

When Franklin reached 65, he wrote his autobiography, in which he reevaluated his life based on these thirteen principles.  He was proud to declare that he had attained and maintained all these principles except one—humility.  Did he really not?

We can draw two interpretations from this statement about humility.  The first is “Humility is not easy”—even a great man like Benjamin Franklin couldn’t attain it.  The second is, by saying he hasn’t attained humility, he had attained it because if he said he did, he would not be humble anymore.  It was creative and keeps me thinking about the paradox of humility.

Jesus warned us to maintain our humility even when we have attained honorable status spiritually or socially.  He used the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to teach a lesson on humility.  The Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” (Luke 18:11-12).  All this Pharisee’s spiritual achievement is wiped off by his “contempt” (Luke 18:9) toward fellow human beings.

Jesus then said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Lk 18:14).  Let us stay humble and be fruitful.  Amen!