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The Table Video

Heroic Humility - Everett Worthington, Jr

July 13, 2017

After coming to an understanding of what humility is, I suggest that heroic humility is a desirable personal virtue. Heroic humility is persistent humility across a lifetime of ego-challenging life circumstances. Everett Worthington makes some practical suggestions based on cognitive psychology on developing a character that more closely resembles a heroic humility, and then discusses a brief intervention.


Well, I’m happy to be here today. And you know, my dad said, never follow a Banjo Act. [audience laughs] So I’ve, you know, stumbled into a Banjo Act I feel like you know, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has just presented and I’m about to do lip syncing air guitar. Well, my talk is going to be different. In fact, it will probably be the worst talk of the entire thing [audience laughs] I’m sure that anyway.

So, it is gonna be a little different because I am gonna deal with intervention. I didn’t see anybody else on the keynote, dealing with intervention but so there’ll be some differences here. So I call this, Heroic Humility, Conceptualization, Formation and Intervention. And what I hope to do is to kind of come to an understanding of or tell you what my understanding is of humility, a lot of which overlaps with things that June said, we are psychologist, you know, we hang in the same circle sometimes. And then talk about heroic humility, which is humility across our lifetime of dealing with ego challenging circumstances and developing a disposition of heroic humility.

And then I wanna look at cognitive psychology and not just to, and not cognitive behavioral psychology but cognitive psychology and just draw some practical implications out of that for humility and then give you a couple of little intervention studies that we’ve done. That’s my mission. This is a story I heard from Tony Gamboa I don’t know if y’all know Tony Gamboa, but he says people don’t sit in the front row when I talk because I spit. So but anyway, Tony talked about this guy, this is not me. Just wanna make that clear before we start and this guy was a college student, he was like, you know, working on his physical appearance and so he’s pumping iron in his room and he gets all pumped up and he looks in the mirror, you know, and he sees something like this.

And, and he’s thinking, you know, I need to share this experience with other people. And I’m gonna go over to the student common and I’m gonna just wear my tank top and I’m gonna, you know, just show off basically. And so he starts out the door and at the last moment, he realizes, wait a minute, the scholar athlete will be much more impressive. And so he grabs a bunch of books because he realized this really kind of pumps the biceps up, you know, so he takes off over to the student commons, and he gets the all American meal fries, hamburger and a shake, right? And so he’s carrying his, you know, tray back to the table, which of course, flexes that bicep and the books in the other arm, you know, and he’s aware of the eyes of everyone that are upon him. And he decides to be cool.

And so he, you know, goes to drink some of his milkshake and he, you know, aims at the straw and it kinda bounces off of this lip and he’s chasing it around and around, you know, and then he finally out of desperation, lunges at it and it lodges in his nostrils. And so now you know, he’s aware that everybody’s looking at him and you know, and he’s trying to get it dislodged but he has no hands to get it dislodged and at last you know, just being desperate, he just jerks his head away. And of course the straw comes out of the milk shake and he’s slinging it all over. Pride goeth before a fall. You see, so, you know, humility is not just getting our arrogance savaged. It’s something else. I used to use this story actually myself in my thought life because I thought that humility is defeating pride. And when I felt prideful, you know, I would just go like don’t be like that guy you know, with the milkshake thing.

But, you know, humility is something else besides, you know, just defeating pride. So, you know, every time I get some kind of award, God gives me a lesson in humility. And by that I mean, that both times that I’ve actually been recognized for something, God has given me this lesson in humility. Like I had to give a talk at APA. And I talked for the first time in my life on humility. And so I’m a little uncertain about this talk.

And so I’m in the next room to the one that I’m supposed to present. It turns out it was a pretty large thing because it was address, you know, that drew a lot of people and, so I’m rehearsing this, and right before the talk starts, I you know, go into the room and I come in the back door and seats are filled up. There’s like 400 people in there. And as I stepped through the door there was this hook on the door, and it caught my fly and it just ripped it totally open. You know, and so I’m standing in the back of the room looking at the back of all these heads, and I’m trying to, you know, get modest and it’s not working out for me. And I look up front and you know, I’m thinking about lecterns.

Oh no, it couldn’t be you know, this kind of lectern that I hid behind it. It was you know, a plastic lectern that you could see through. And so I gave this address, you know, in front of all these people standing sideways to them you know, I mean, there were a lot of creative positioning. You know, I had a lot of options in this you know, but I ended up, you know, talking to folks like this and afterwards somebody came out and said really nice talk on humility it’s too bad about your deformity. So, you know, humiliation is, you know, it can set off a quest for humility, but it’s not really the essence of humility. In fact, you know, humility is not just the absence of things, it really does engage something positive.

It’s not just about owning our limits, either. You know, I think, so this is my son, and this was his first child. That’s not being humiliated. But when he held that baby for the first time, when we marry someone and we commit to this person, you know, we feel a sense that I am not up to the task here. And it’s not a negative feeling. It’s a positive feeling. It’s a positive challenge that we know we’re other oriented, but we, you know, and we want to serve other people. And we become aware of the limits that we have, and we want to be teachable in those moments. That’s one of the three legs I believe, of the stool that humility rests on.

The second leg of the stool is modesty. And modesty is you know, as June pointed out, not equivalent to humility, but we have looked at measures of modesty, and factor analyzed them at the same time of measures of humility. And modesty is a component of humility in the way that people respond to these measures. So humility becomes a second order factor. And modesty is a component underneath it and it’s very integrally related to it. But it’s not equivalent. There’re a lot of things I could be modest because I was trained that way. And it has nothing to do with humility. So there’re a lot of ways to be modest and not be humble.

The third, and the most controversial part, I think, is that I believe humility involves a lack of self focus. So and that lack of self focus is not just not focusing on myself. After all, couldn’t I be on drugs and not be very self focused? And that doesn’t make me humble. It’s being not self focused for a reason. And that reason is I wish to lift others up instead of putting them down. I wish to not deny my power but use power under control to lift others up and not put them down. And that is where a lot of disagreement takes place in defining humility among psychologists because some people say it’s a quiet ego. And they look at mindfulness, I say well you can be mindful, you can have a quiet ego and not be humble.

You just are not loud with your ego. So those are the three parts I think of humility, I look at them as three circles in a Venn diagram. Humility is the sweet spot where you have all three of those. You can have any one it’s not humility you can have any two it’s not humility. You need all three of those legs. Let’s look at the Apostle Paul, if you remember the humility hymn in Philippians 2 but remember the context for that. Paul is in prison, and he sent a letter to the church at Philippi. Now how did he know the people at Philippi?

He knew because in Acts 16, he is talking to the people and he ends up causing an economic problem by a woman who’s following them around, you know, saying, you know things and he gets her to stop and the people who kinda profited by her, brought him before the magistrates and they ordered a beating and then they put Paul and his troop in stocks in a prison at night. And there he is with his feet in stocks in the dark at midnight, and they’re singing hymns and songs to the other prisoners.

Well, you know, wow, I just think I probably wouldn’t have been there actually. An earthquake happened so the door springs open, right? He’s back in the dark. The guy who was ordered to care for him, the jailer, looks and sees the door open. He wakes up, sees the door and goes, oh my gosh, I have let these prisoners escape. He pulls his sword out He’s about to kill himself. I’m projecting myself into this situation where Paul is I’m thinking, God has made a way to free us. He’s gonna let that guy kill himself. That’s not what Paul did. Paul is other oriented. Paul says, you know, wait, we are all here.

And the guy doesn’t kill himself, and in fact says, how do I become a Christian? He sees this example of heroic humility, and he wants to become a Christian. And he comes to believe, and his whole household comes to believe. And now Paul is in jail again. And he’s sitting there writing a letter to Philippi, and they’re reading this. And as they read this letter about Jesus, that he, you know, did not count equality with God, a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself taking the form of a servant, serving others, even unto death, death on the cross.

And everybody is probably looking at that Philippian jailer who’s sitting there going, yes I’m alive because Paul, lived that out. If Paul can live that out, I can live that out. I’m gonna talk about this fourth wise man in just a minute. Humility is built through developing our virtue, this is the way Christian formation happens. I think that virtue is built in a kind of a four stage process. One, we glimpse the goal, where we wanna go.

We don’t see it clearly. But it starts us on the journey. And then we seek to build habits of the heart to practice humility as perfectly as we can, so that we build a habit that becomes second nature to us. But I can think that I have a virtue. I can think I’m courageous but if I never face a test of my courage, I may not know whether I’m courageous or not. And if I never face a challenge to my ego that is posed by things like trials and temptations and suffering that we undergo in life, and still can I be other oriented in those situations? Can I know my own limits? Can I be modest in those situations? If I don’t face those tests, I may not actually build the humility that I think I’m building.

And so, you know, we require suffering and tests and trials and temptation, in order to prove the humility. And I believe that that leads to ultimate satisfaction, not necessarily happiness, because, you know, to think about people who care for elderly infirm parents, almost none of them will say, wow, this really makes me happy. But they say I am satisfied with my life, I’m doing the right thing. So that virtue sequence that we form our Christian character by often begins by contemplating heroes of humility.

And they help us glimpse that goal that we want to get to. So some of the models of humility, my self and a social psychologist at University of Richmond, Scott Allison, Scott’s a expert on heroes. He’s written a bunch of books and a bunch of papers on heroes. And Scott and I ballroom dance in the same place and one night I came in and said Scott, hey man, you study heroes I study humility, we ought to write a book on heroic humility. And he’s like, send me a proposal tomorrow. And I’m like, okey dokey. And I sent him a proposal and that’s gonna be an APA book.

So, we look at all of the heroes that can give us that glimpse of the goal that we want to and they’re just a number of these up here, Mother Teresa, George Washington, Helen Keller, Ian Sullivan, Dalai Lama. All of these can be heroes of humility for us. Humility is built through practicing humility, practice until, you know it becomes a habit of the heart. Has anybody ever seen this film The Fourth Wise Man? If you haven’t, you need to get it on Netflix. It is Martin Sheen and Alan Arkin. So it’s a great movie. So let me just give you a summary of it and spoil it for you. Sorry, spoiler alert. I’m about to ruin everything but so there were not three wise men but there actually were four wise men.

This is a little non-fiction in this book and so the book was by Henry Van Dyke and this is a movie based on it. The fourth wise man sells everything he owns to go and worship the Christ child because he sees the star. Unfortunately, he’s a little, since Eleanor can out his, you know, servant who is not very humble and is not at all humble. He’s the operationalization of arrogance actually and whininess and he send him out and he’s late getting back and so, you know, he misses the bible. You know, he misses the he’s the fourth wise man, but he’s still so committed so he reduced all of his worldly possessions to three precious jewels he takes one of those precious jewels has Alan Arkin sell it in order to purchase the means, the camels, the troop that will help them get to find the the Christ child.

He heads off, but gets there late of course. Jesus is gone, the stable is empty and they’re gone to Egypt. And he follows them to Egypt and you know, can’t find Jesus he’s now gone someplace back into the Holy Land. And so what happens is he ends up finding himself standing outside a house hearing a baby cry and it is the Slaughter of the Innocents where Herod is having all the innocents killed and the Romans have come to kill the babies. And as a soldier comes up with a sword to kill this crying infant and I might say that soldier was named Charlie Sheen. Charlie’s first appearance. So as this soldier comes up and hears the crying baby Alan Arkin, not Alan Arkin Martin Sheen, the wise man takes one of the jewels one of his two jewels and says, I hear no baby around here. And Charlie Sheen soldier takes the jewel and walks off and leaves this baby that he doesn’t that Martin Sheen doesn’t know alive.

Well, turns out, he gets mugged by a bunch of people in a leper colony and they steal his last jewel. He goes to the leper colony. And there’s such a need there that he says, well, I’ll just stay one day and treat the lepers. And they line up and the line goes off to where you can’t see it any longer. And he’s treating them and then he says, well, maybe I’ll stay a second day and maybe a third day. And Alan Arkin is going crazy and whining about this, you know, why are you doing this? And 20 some odd years later, he has still is serving this like a leper colony. He’s now old. His body is worn out from service. He has never seen the Christ child. he thinks his last jewel is gone. Because when people in the village burnt down the leper colony, he gave the jewel to the woman who ran the leper colony and said, go buy grain and things to maintain the leper colony, she didn’t do that. His best friend is a blind young man. And this blind young man hears that there is a healer in Jerusalem.

And he goes out, and he comes back. And he can see. And this is the Christ child. And he tells Martin Sheen, you know, this is the person you’ve waited for seeing all your life. This is the person. And Martin Sheen, who’s devoted his life to serving others, on behalf of this Christ child says, but I have nothing to give him. Well he decides, at that point, they tell him, we still have your jewel, and they give him the jewel. And he takes off to the city to see the Christ, who is now Jesus, on the week that he’s gonna be crucified. And he’s on his way. And this woman that he really doesn’t know, is being sold into slavery. And he takes his last jewel.

And he gives it to the man and buys her out of slavery. He’s worn out, he falls down with a heart attack he’s never going to get to see this person that he’s worked for all his life. And he recovers from that heart attack. And it’s now a day where there are three empty crosses on the hill. And he’s missed this person. And as he makes his way through the city, he falls down with another massive heart attack and he’s dying. And a shadow falls over him and someone gives him a drink of water. And he smiles and he is seeing what his eyes have wanted to see. Well, there are no shortage of real life heroes.

Not just fictional heroes, but there’s no shortage. I wish I could tell you all these stories. I don’t have time to do that. Joe Louis rated the greatest boxer of all time, even greater than Muhammad Ali, Mr. humility. Joe Louis actually was very humble, there’s a story about him sitting on the back of a bus, in the 1940s. He’s world champion. And he’s sitting at the back of a bus and these three young guys start harassing him and making racial taunts and trying to provoke him. This is the guy who was the world champion boxer, and they’re taunting him they do not know what they’re doing. Father forgive them, they do not know what they’re doing.

And they can’t provoke him. And finally, they give up and as he gets off of the bus, he just hands them his personal card, which doesn’t say Joe Louis, champion of the world it says Joe Louis boxer, and he gets off and leaves. That’s a great story. You would like that one too. And of course, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn we always like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, there are many stories. These stories follow what is called a hero’s quest. The hero’s quest, you are the hero of your story. So you have this Joseph Campbell, you know, described hero’s quest I use Frodo here. We are drafted into our life.

We did not choose our parents, we did not choose our situation, we did not choose things that we wanted to do. We are drafted into this we are set on the path of this quest. And we get accompanied often by a wise person, is there a wise person in your life? Maybe it’s a parent, maybe it’s a former teacher, coach, mentor. We are accompanied by someone or someones throughout our journey. A community , a Fellowship of the Ring And a loyal friend, who often will sometimes bear our burdens when we can’t bear our burdens. Unexpected people like Galadriel the elf, who gave the vail of light to Frodo, and he didn’t have any idea why I would have this vail of light. But when he gets attacked in a cave by a big spider, Shelob.

That light in the darkness has come from this unexpected friend that we have. Do you have unexpected friends who have blessed you and brought light into your life when you needed it? Well, we also sometimes get blessed with someone like Gollum in our life. Somebody who is a thorn in our side, who for Frodo, who cannot, oh, by the way, spoiler alert, in case you are the person who never saw the Ring trilogy. You know, I’m sorry about this, but who bites Frodo’s ring finger off, because Frodo did not have the strength of character to carry out the quest. He needed that thorn in the side to make him successful.

And then after this, after the successful quest, they returned to the Shire Arwen was aggravated by that. Why did Tolkien put that in there? You know, because it’s so boring. He just cleans up the Shire, you know, ho ham, another day, another dollar? Well, that’s perfect. That’s exactly what happens. These quests change us. They transform us. And we are no longer the same person when we go back. Well, I don’t even remember how much time I have. I’m afraid to ask don’t tell me. There’s some, I think some neat things that we might learn about practical things from cognitive psychology.

So cognitive psychology is summarized, I think, in a very neat way by John Haidt. John Hiadt, New York University used to be at the University of Virginia his lab and my lab used to meet together and you know, I remember him saying, and I used to study revenge, and they call me John Hate. Now I steady elevation, they call me John Height, says my mother calls me John Haidt. So John, written a couple of really good books, he has this wonderful metaphor that describes cognitive psychology. It basically says that our cognitive system, our way of doing mental activity is composed of implicit cognition and explicit cognition. Explicit cognition is what we’ve been doing, right? It’s talking about the reasons, the logic, it’s what philosophers do, it’s what psychologists do when they make explicit definition.

According to cognitive psychology, that accounts for about 5% of your mental activity. 95% of it is implicit cognition, it’s informed by motivation, by emotion, by all kinds of implicit unconscious reasoning, and that’s like an elephant. And our reasoning is like the rider sitting on top of the elephant. And the rider can exert a lot of energy and get the elephant to move in a particular direction, but it takes a lot of energy. And we get tired quickly, our ego depletes very quickly.

And so what tends to happen is often our implicit cognition guides us, and the elephant leans right. And our explicit cognition says, I want to go right, right is a good place to go. And we make rationalizations about, you know, what our implicit cognition wanted. Now, the third part of this is that there is an environmental surround, there are people that we deal with, there’re communities we deal with there are physical environment, and that can shape the way that we go. Our whole cognitive life is lazy. We want the easy way, we want the easy environmental path, we want the easy cognitive path. That’s why habits are so important. Bad habits or good habits. Because habits don’t require explicit cognition, we just do do them. And that’s why if you want to form Christian character, you form habits.

You don’t set about directing yourself, and feeding every challenge that you get by explicit cognition. So this is a wonderful book, if you haven’t read it, Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. And they deal with practical ways that you can apply this cognitive understanding of life. Basically, they narrow these down to talk to the rider, the explicit cognition. Shape the path, guide the internal, the elephant, the big 95% of what’s going on. So here are some, you know, suggestions about how you can do that. So shape the path. How do I arrange my environment, you know, tweak the environment.

I don’t know if anybody saw the film Moneyball with Brad Pitt. But basically, he’s got this idea about how he wants to work on percentages, baseball for Oakland, and the coach keeps undermining him. And so what he does is he sells off all the players that the coach has been using that didn’t fit with his plan. He shaped the environment. And then as they start winning, and they put together a record that has still not been broken of 19 straight wins. The coach is everybody’s hero. Wow, what a great coach, this guy is. But because the environment was shaped. That’s the way he had to behave. Build habits, rally the herd.

So this is shaping the path, getting people to help you, in your quest for formation. Motivate the elephant, how do we do this? Well find a good image for, you know, building humility. The example that they give that the Heaths give in their book is, there was this worldwide company and everybody at all the different branches are purchasing gloves, and they’re negotiating their individual contracts for gloves. What turns out there’re like 130 different contracts, some people are paying, you know, $50 for a pair of gloves, some people are paying $10 for the same pair of gloves, because they negotiated a different contract.

This person could come in to the board of directors and say, look, I have this PowerPoint presentation, let me show you how much money we’re losing, he could appeal to the rider. He doesn’t. He sends an intern out all to every plant that they have, he gets all of the different gloves, and he puts a price tag on them. And he piles 130 pair of gloves up on the table. And he just invites people to walk around and look at this image and look at the price that people paid. That motivated the elephant, they’re like, we’ve got to change this policy. Didn’t appeal to their reason as much as it motivated the elephant. Grow your people.

For Christians, we are a humble people. That is your identity. If we can build that identity, the salience of that identity that motivates the elephant. I want to live into the identity that I have. Direct the rider. Okay, finally, we get to the explicit cognition. When people see a big problem, they think they have to have a big solution. This is not true. In fact, what happens is when you say I’ve got this big problem I’ve gotta solve and you start looking for a big solution, you get into analysis paralysis. Basically, you won’t move because it’s too big, you’re never gonna find the big solution.

This guy goes to Vietnam, and his task is you have six months to fix a malnutrition problem in Vietnam. The government gives him that. So did he, you know, try to do this in a logical way? Not really. What he does is he goes and gets the mothers in a village and he asks them, he says, is everybody in your village are all the kids malnourished? And they go no there’s some that aren’t. He goes, go live with them. Find out what they’re doing that the other people aren’t doing. There looking for bright spots, looking for successes.

When have you been humbled? Are there times when you got your ego challenged, but you feel that you were humble? Look for the bright spots, what they found in Vietnam was they found that these mothers were cutting down on the size of the meal and feeding the kids four meals a day, same amount of food as the rest of the people who were two meals a day. kids couldn’t process all that food. So you know, they were malnourished. By cutting down the meals by actually making the kids eat by putting some shrimp and you know, greens in their fried rice. They fixed the malnourishment problem. Script the critical moves.

You know, think about what are the moves I need to, not every move, can’t plan every move. You don’t know what’s gonna happen. What’s gonna get me started? What’s gonna keep me moving? And what do I need to finish? Point to a destination. There’s a destination postcard I want to go to Yosemite National Park. What’s the destination? See if you can find a good end point and use SMART goals. These goals are specific goals. I wish I could go through this. These are practical ways to do all of these things. Boy, they’re great. That’s good stuff right there. That really is to, this is how to do it in humility I wish we can do that. I do wanna tell you about this little intervention.

No, not this intervention, the St. Benedict 12 step program for St. Benedict or the 12 step Downward of Pride by Bernard of Clairvaux but rather the St. Caroline Lavelock. Graduate Student that worked with me. And she developed, we developed together actually, a workbook to measure humility. You can get that workbook and all those workbooks and thank you Evan for mentioning it, on my page, that’s got all these do it yourself workbooks, it’s got forgiveness manuals, it’s got all kinds of things. Everything on there is free, except the books they won’t let me give the books away. The rest I would, and I do often.

But let me tell you what happened. We randomly assigned people to one of five intervention workbooks. They were humility, forgiveness, self control, patience or positivity. And we also had a non action control group that just filled out all the measures. People volunteered to be in a study to go through a intervention to help them become more virtuous. We didn’t tell them how, and they were randomly assigned to these. At the end, we measured changes in trait measures, not state measures. Trait long term assessments. The humility condition, helped people become more humble by filling out the workbook.

But even though we didn’t mention forgiveness, it helped them be more forgiving. Humility is a gateway virtue. It’s about being other oriented people who are other oriented wanted to forgive spontaneously, they changed their trait of forgiveness, they reduced their negative mood, and they changed their patience. We thought if that’s good, then we probably can replicate this.

We improved the workbook a little bit. And this time, we recruited people to be in a humility study. And randomly assigned them to humility study, to humility or positivity or no action we’re comparing with the no action control right here. And we got more dramatic results. Changes in humility in forgivingness in patience and in negativity. Here’s the numbers. Trait humility, these are number of standard deviations of change. One standard deviation almost in this, this is first and second study. Look at forgivingness.

You don’t realize how much that is? We did a meta analysis of all interventions on forgiveness, and they changed state forgiveness by 1/10 of a standard deviation per hour of intervention. A seven hour workbook, if this were aimed at forgiveness, on the average would produce 7/10 of a standard deviation of change and forgiveness. Humility not mentioning forgiveness, .91, 9/10 of a standard deviation. Also patience changed and negativity 10 times reduction of negativity when we assigned them to humility. Humility is knowing your strengths and limitations and seeking to be teachable. Humility is presenting yourself modestly.

Humility is focusing on others to lift them up and not put them down. Humility is a steel-like virtue that is hardened in the flames, heat and suffering of the furnace of life’s test, trials and temptation. Humility is a hero’s journey in which we as Christians are called. We can’t control our destiny, only our commitment to the One who calls us and then only by the Callers mercy and grace. May we receive this mercy and grace and be wise people as a result of this. Thank you.