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The Gift of Humility

Why humility is an important quality and commendable character trait.

Key points

  • Humility is a sign of strength.
  • Forgiveness is an act of kindness for the forgiver and the forgiven.
  • Flaws and mistakes are to expected, how we deal with them reflects our characters.

Shakespeare is celebrated throughout history as one of the best playwrights who ever lived. He is on most school curriculums, and his quotes roll off the tongues of people throughout the world. Then why do we so often ignore his wisdom and timeless lessons regarding the human condition? One lesson which I think is often overlooked comes from the Bard himself:

“To err is human and to forgive is divine.”

This is a mantra, which encourages humility, reflection, and openness reminds me of something that happened when I was delivering a workshop in a secondary school. In this particular session, I was annoyed by the behavior of a student. They were arguing and berating one of the other students who had embarrassed them. I didn’t like this behavior and reacted by telling them off. I told them that I could see what they were doing and I didn’t like it. I told them that I thought they were being mean. I did it in front of the entire class, after they had already been embarrassed. But then I had a question for myself: Who was really being mean?

I knew straight after I had done it that something didn’t feel right. I had pushed the point too much and I hadn't shown much kindness, empathy, or humility. I reflected on my behavior, and when I was honest with myself, I acknowledged that I went too far. I understood that I had been trying to control him and belittle him, as I wanted to get on with the session. I made a decision to do something about my actions and I decided to try and make up for what I had done and how I had behaved.

The next week, I began a session by addressing the student in front of the whole class and apologizing for how I had treated them. I said, "I have something I have to say to you. I’m very sorry for the way I treated you last week.” The student knew immediately what I was referring to and gave me a beaming smile, saying, “Don’t worry about it. That’s okay.” The relief in the room was palpable, and in that moment, everybody felt good. My lesson from that situation was that if I want respect I must be respectful. If I want forgiveness, I must be forgiving, and if I want kindness, I must be kind.

In all my years of attending school, I can’t remember hearing a teacher apologize to a student and I saw many teachers humiliate and reprimand students unfairly. As a child, I don’t think I properly understood that adults could get things wrong. I think there is a widespread problematic and distressing belief that makes it difficult for many people to acknowledge wrongdoings and apologize for mistakes. It may be a question of, “If I’m wrong about this, I could be wrong about all of it.” To admit that we have made mistakes is to admit we may have hurt people and caused pain, and that is an uncomfortable and unpleasant personal truth to face.

Many people become comfortable with apportioning blame, which is understandable when we consider how employers, public services, and our education system penalize people who err. To make mistakes can be costly in many situations and we are encouraged to cover them up. As a therapist and educator, I see how these fears and anxieties can be heartbreaking, stifling, debilitating, and soul-destroying. We are all flawed and we are also all worthy of love, kindness and respect.

Sometimes teachers, educators and adults need to be open to the fact that they have a lot to learn. Sometimes the student is the teacher. Sometimes the underestimated and those with little power hold wisdom, knowledge and brilliant life lessons. In the last few years, I have often thought that we spend a lot of time looking the wrong way and listening to the wrong people. That child taught me a precious lesson that day when I apologized to them. They showed me forgiveness in all of its simplicity, strength, and beauty. What a gift they were to me on that day, in all their humble brilliance.