In a society where some politicians are increasingly bombastic, where celebrities are celebrated more than philanthropists, and where we common folk are led to self-promotion for “likes,” the perceived virtue in humility can be obscured and even lost.

Yet, in the past and even now there are people who have accomplished great things, who have risen to heights few of us have known, and they have seemingly remained humble through it all. In this post, I want to highlight five influential human beings who couldn’t help but shine in spite of their inclination to avoid the spotlight. There’s so much that could be said about each, but I will be brief and hope you’ll be inspired to learn more about the lives of these remarkable standouts.

Lou Gehrig

One of the elite members of the New York Yankees in their long history of success, Gehrig was quietly magnificent. Being a key contributor to many championships, he was consistent to the degree he set a long-standing major league record for consecutive games played–2130. Despite his statistics which would have made him the greatest star of most baseball teams, he played second fiddle to the flashy and charismatic Babe Ruth. He did so with grace and class.

When Gehrig had to retire due to contracting the disease which would come to be known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he was honored at Yankee Stadium in 1939. He reluctantly gave a speech that made him an iconic symbol of humility, in which he minimized the sentiment he had been given a bad break. He referenced his parents, his wife, his teammates, the press and the fans, then said he considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi was a rare individual indeed. He was a serious devotee of the Hindu religion while also being a lawyer. When he was finally enjoying success representing wealthy clients, he found his calling to dedicate his skills, time and energy to public service. Political, economic and social justice for the oppressed became his focal point in his practice. His material pursuits gave way to helping others.

Eventually, he took on the British government in his cause of independence for India. He sacrificed much in this lofty goal, putting the lives of his countrymen ahead of his own comforts. As part of his nonviolent civil disobedient strategy, Gandhi fasted in protest of British rule multiple times, the longest one lasting 21 days.

He was quoted many time on humility. Here’s one. “The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth.”

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa is almost synonymous with putting others before oneself. She dedicated her life to Christ at the age of 12. At the age of 36, after having been a nun and teacher for 17 years, she began her work caring for sick and poor people. She started The Missionaries of Charity order for this purpose. They created a hospice, centers for the blind, disabled and aged, and also a leper colony.

She was tireless in her work, which earned her a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

From the Catholic Exchange website: A priest once asked St. Teresa of Calcutta what she would do when she was no longer Mother General. 

I am first class at cleaning drains and toilets,” Mother Teresa answered, as told in the book Where There is Love, There is God.

Fred Rogers

When Mister Rogers (how can I possibly refer to him merely as Rogers) was a senior in college, he realized television could be an educational medium for children. He changed his life path and started a career in television. He became disillusioned with commercial TV and helped found WQED in Pittsburgh, the first community-supported station in the United States. The next year, he became involved with The Children’s Corner.

He was eventually ordained as a Presbyterian minister, but he always kept his purpose to serve children as his main focus. When he launched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, his deep, wholesome compassion and caring for pre-schoolers was an inspiration for children and adults alike. His genuine sincerity and selfless attitude come across in this statement he made.

“I’ll never forget the sense of wholeness I felt when I finally realized, after a lot of help from a lot of people, what, in fact, I really wasn’t. I was not just a songwriter or a language buff or a student of human development or a telecommunicator, but someone who could use every talent that had ever been given to me in the service of children and their families.” 

Clara Barton

Clara Barton was a shy girl. When her brother David was extremely ill, she helped take care of him to restore his health. At the age of 18, a family doctor recommended she become a teacher and her parents made it happen. She founded two schools over the next 13 years.

Her life of service really hit its stride when the Civil War started. She took it upon herself to deliver supplies to the Union soldiers who were short on them. In 1862, she was given official permission to bring supplies to actual battlefields. This led to treating injured soldiers and being tabbed as “angel of the battlefield.” General Benjamin Butler gave her the title of head nurse for one of his units despite her complete lack of medical training. Once the war ended, she dedicated herself to finding missing soldiers.

In later years, she lobbied for the establishment of the American Association of the Red Cross. She was elected president of the organization. While there for the next 23 years, she carried out her administrative duties while personally helping disaster victims, the homeless and the poor.

Who Are These People?

Of course we know the special ones listed here. Their actions have spoken loudly over their soft words. There are many more famous luminaries who live humble lives. They are virtual beacons whose light is often hidden under bushels of good works in service of others they hold up in respect. In my next post, I would like to take a look at how life might be lived in the neutralization of ego. For now, let’s hold dear those who grace the rest of us with genuine humility.