Name a virtue that you admire in others and want to cultivate in yourself.
So what word comes to mind? Courage would have been a good answer, for so many people these days seem to lack the ability to confront their personal fears or to face life’s uncertainties with confidence. Another good answer would be justice; it is concern for the public good that demands we look outside our selfishness to meet others’ needs and to protect their persons and rights.
Self-control or the ability to practice moderation and restraint might be your immediate concern; if you are battling weight or smoking or temper, it probably ranks high on your list of desired virtues. I dare to say prudence didn’t come to mind – though you might have used a contemporary term such as good judgment or discretion; it is the counter to thoughtless and reckless behaviors.
Those four qualities – temperance, prudence, courage, and justice – are often termed the cardinal virtues to Western civilization. As far back as Plato and Aristotle, they receive praise. Add such names as Seneca, Thomas Aquinas, and Ben Franklin to the list, if you wish. These are praiseworthy traits. And all are consistent with the great ethical teachings of Judaism and Christianity.
A virtue that gets little attention and practically no praise in modern settings is humility. Perhaps it is because our culture tends less and less to consult or quote biblical materials in its discussions of character. Perhaps, too, it is because we seem to have equated a healthy sense of self-esteem with personal arrogance.
In athletics, we call it “swagger.” In the halls of the academy, it is “pomp and circumstance.” In business and high finance, it is “perks.” On the streets, it can be called anything from “attitude” to “posturing” to “respect.” And while none of these terms is evil or inappropriate, our shallow culture has come to define them in terms of a feigned superiority that lets one person or group step on another.
So the football player dances in the end zone or over the opponent he tackles, and the pitcher in baseball pretends to be a gunslinger when he strikes out the other team’s cleanup hitter. In the university or company, the person who gets the promotion gloats over the one who doesn’t. On the streets, she dresses like a whore and wants the reputation of being “a mean girl” or he works hard at the glare and manner of a thug. The result is not healthy self-esteem on display but boorish, uncivil, and cruel behavior – behavior of the sort that creates fights and vendettas when two persons or groups of the same mindset meet.
Humility means acknowledging we all stand on others’ shoulders. We all know too little to put others down. We all owe it to the other person to hear her point and to try to understand his perspective. C.S. Lewis made this important point: “Humility is not thinking less of oneself but thinking of oneself less.”
“Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2 NLT).
By Rubel Shelly