The Intellectually Humble

Our heroes are robbing us of human connection. Our nation’s divisive, splintered culture is the fault of end zone celebrations. 

Let me explain. 

In December, the Washington Post published a column by Ashley Merryman regarding her research into something called intellectual humility. Merryman and her colleagues performed social experiments that divided people into two categories: the intellectually humble and the intellectually arrogant. The article summarizes: 

Researchers observed that the intellectually humble have a constant desire to learn and improve. They embrace ambiguity and the unknown. They like getting new information. They even enjoy finding out when they’re wrong...
The intellectually arrogant are convinced they have the right answers, certain they’ve heard it all before. They’re even threatened by new information. They perceive new facts not as facts, but as a passive-aggressive statement that you think they’re ignorant.
Studies have shown that those low in humility overreact during conflicts. They double-down and retrench. They strike out when angered, they plot their revenge. If they’re the actual wrongdoers, they refuse to apologize or accept responsibility. Instead, they blame their victims.
The humble, on the other hand, are more pro-social. They build connections. They’re more helpful, tolerant, sensitive and accepting of differences.

Intellectual humility is related to curiosity, empathy, and social connection. It is a virtue that allows us to hear one another without being threatened by one another. It’s the ability to process without posturing, to befriend without fear. 

And it is missing from our cultural consciousness. 

Our heroes are the antithesis of humility. They strut and shout. They insist on being right. They pass the buck and chase the dollar. Even their apologies are performances. Each time an athlete, actor, or politician beats his chest, he teaches his followers the ways of the intellectually arrogant. Grab the stage or the mic or the trophy and nothing else will matter. Winners get away with it. To the victor goes the spoiling. 

So it should not surprise us that our neighborhoods and workplaces, our schools and city halls, are less tolerant, less welcoming, and less peaceful than ever before. When we abandon virtue, we abandon one another. The intellectually arrogant build walls. 

This is where the Christian virtue of humility can help our nation. When Jesus said “Blessed are the meek,” he did not mean the codependent, the doormats. It’s telling that our culture is so unfamiliar with humility that we don’t understand his blessing. Humility doesn’t equal self-loathing. Humility is strength, not weakness. Humility is not having to win the argument. Humility is knowing who you are without the trophies or the votes. The proud get their worth from exterior sources, and are haunted by the knowledge that they can lose them. But the humble are grounded in the knowledge that they have been rescued and redeemed. That the God of the universe loves them like a child. That they don’t have to win the game or the argument or the Oscar or the trade war or the election to have worth. Humility removes the conflict between your opinions and my self-worth. It opens the door for us to live at peace with one another.