H is for Humility Rather Than Hubris

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Looking back on your life, can you think of a situation where you aimed to be humble?

You may have aimed to serve others, serve life or serve the process. Maybe you were able to be humble or maybe there were things you could do better next time. Overall, however, you tried to contribute in a humble way.

Humility is a lifelong quest. Like wisdom, as soon as you think you have got it, you haven’t.

One of the most formative experiences I had was working in a home for older people at Christmas. The residents supported me, even though I was there to help them go to the toilet, eat meals and do their daily tasks.

Many years later I recalled those times when reading Sheila Cassidy’s book Sharing The Darkness. Looking back on her time as Medical Director of St. Luke’s Hospice in Plymouth, she focused on how professionals must learn to show love. Sheila describes her first meeting with a patient.

Once alone with a new patient I introduce myself, explain that I have come at the request of their doctor, and ask them to tell me their story.

It is in the telling of the story that I meet my patient and in my listening to him that he meets me.

Everything depends on the quality of my listening: the patient must understand clearly from my verbal and non-verbal cues that I am interested in him as a person as well as his physical problems.

Sheila talks of Frank, a Manchester builder, who suddenly became paralysed from the waist down. The cancer in his kidney reached his spine and St. Lukes’ staff helped him to wrestle with his sense of loss: he would never walk again.

Driving around Plymouth, Sheila reflects on her own personality, her strengths and limits. She writes:

I found myself saying again and again, ‘You wash the feet that will not walk tomorrow’, and realised that this was my job, my calling.

I, who have little patience with the demented and no love for tiny babies, have a special gift of warmth and understanding for those whose time is running out.

I, who hate parties and find it nigh impossible to make small talk know instinctively what to say and do for a gentle Manchester builder who is facing the humiliation of incontinence and the fear of death.

Hospices have much to teach our society, says Sheila. They value the vulnerable: the brain-damaged, the sick and the old. They do this in a world that values competition and economic success. Vulnerability is a great teacher because it crystallises what is really important in our lives.

Sharing the Darkness

Sheila is not talking about building more hospices. She is talking about expanding the hospice philosophy across society. All people are precious; all people need love; all people want to find peace in their lives.

She also felt humble in the presence of others who wanted to give. Sheila remembers:

I recall the young Catholic woman dying of cancer who asked me one day, ‘How can I use my suffering for others?’

Humble people seem to want to serve others and serve life. They want to help others to succeed. On the other hand, some people present themselves with hubris. They aim to be superior, saying they are market leaders or whatever.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to focus on the following things.

Describe a specific situation in which you tried to be humble.

Describe the specific things you did to try to be humble.

Describe the specific things that happened as a result of you trying to be humble.

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Humility In The Future

During the late 1960s I was given the chance to work in therapeutic communities. One of the main areas I explored was how to encourage people.

In addition to studying at various psychoanalytic institutions, I contacted some of the leading figures in the field. Several allowed me to visit them and ask questions.

Many had reputations for doing heroic things, such as pioneering new approaches. At the same time, however, I found them to be humble. Looking at the paths they had charted, two themes emerged – service and steel.


They had found something to serve in their lives. They may be serving a vocation, a cause, a spiritual faith or some other driver.

They did not take credit for any gifts they had been given. They felt a responsibility, however, to make full use of those strengths.


They were humble, but had remarkable resolve. They were determined to use their gifts for the benefit of others.

Like many fine teachers, they were inspiring but tough. Everybody knew what was expected if they wanted to work with such people.

Robert Greenleaf provided an insight into these types of leaders in his book Servant Leadership. Such people began by finding something to serve. Later they developed the desire to provide leadership in their chosen field.

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Jim Collins highlighted a similar approach in his book Good to Great. When studying great organisations, he found a common characteristic demonstrated by many of their leaders.

They built enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility and professional will.

Different people show humility in different ways. They may show it through appreciating life or giving to others. Most of all, they often want to serve something greater than themselves.

Brother David has enabled many people to become more humble and grateful. Here is a video in which he encourages people to focus on the opportunities in each day. You can discover more at the following website.


If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. Looking ahead, it invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in which you want to try to be humble.

Describe the specific things you can do to try to be humble in the situation.

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of you trying to be humble in the situation.

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