Updated: Dec 8, 2022
Humility is often touted as a model and exemplary character trait; as something we should all strive to have more of. Humble people are better liked, they accomplish more in life, and they are overall more adaptable to the challenges life throws at them. We all like to consider ourselves humble to some extent, and we definitely like it when the people in our lives are humble.
But what is genuine humility? Is it when we allow ourselves to be hurt and not do anything about it? Does being humble mean allowing others to trample on our feelings? Does it entail giving away what is ours just to appease those around us? If that’s what humility is, then perhaps it isn’t that great of a trait as it is made out to be.
Nobody likes an appeaser, as Winston Churchill once said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile—hoping it will eat him last.” So it isn’t even a commendable survival mechanism. At the end of the day, if you allow yourself to be overrun, you will not get very far and you certainly will not accomplish anything. So why all the hype about humility?
The answer can perhaps be found in the story of Jacob, who after more than two decades of forced labor for his father-in-law Laban, had finally amassed a fortune of his own and was able to return to the land of his ancestors and be reunited with his parents. Instead, on his way back, he is informed that his brother Esau, who had it in for him and was itching to kill him and his entire family, was approaching him with a small army.
Jacob divides his family into two camps, sends gifts to Esau, and then he prays to G-d. In his prayer, Jacob declares, “I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have rendered Your servant.” The smallness here is the ever evasive humility. G-d had promised to protect Jacob from harm, and Jacob recognized that everything he earned was a blessing from G-d. That’s where his humility showed itself.
Perhaps, he said to himself, I have already “used up” all of my blessings from G-d by becoming wealthy, and now when it really matters, there is nothing left. His humility, or his smallness, was not that he didn’t consider himself deserving of G-d’s blessing, it’s that he was concerned about pushing the envelope.
Jacob's humility led him to acknowledge that everything he had was from G-d, and for that he was eternally grateful. He wasn’t allowing himself to be overrun and trampled on, he had a legitimate concern about whether he was still deserving of G-d’s blessing.
So what did he do? He pleaded with G-d to extend the blessing just a bit further and to protect him from any harm his evil brother intended. His humility, his ability to set his ego aside and look beyond his own achievements, is what led him to the clarity of the moment—the knowledge that G-d has faith in him to survive.
Humility is not about giving up and letting things happen on their own. That’s not what Jacob did, and that isn’t what anyone should do. A truly humble person can see beyond the black and white and is able to focus on the bigger picture; and like Jacob, once you recognize that we are each but a piece of G-d’s amazing puzzle, the drive within us will be ignited to keep going.
Being humble means standing up for what you believe in, and for the right reasons. Being genuinely humble means that everything you do is imbued with truth, because your only agenda is the truth and nothing more. With our self-biases set aside, we can be humble, we can be strong, and most importantly—we can be productive.