The simple expression I am humbled is full of emotional, relational, and cultural complexity with ancient connotations.
To some extent, saying I am humbled is tantamount to saying I am in touch with my humanity, because the English words humble and human seem to share the same Latin root humus:
mid-15c., humain, humaigne,
from Old French humain, umain (adj.) "of
or belonging to man" (12c.),
from Latin humanus "of man, human," also
"humane, philanthropic, kind, gentle, polite; learned, refined,
probably related to homo (genitive hominis) "man" (see
homunculus) and to humus "earth," on notion of "earthly beings," as
opposed to the gods
(compare Hebrew adam "man," from adamah "ground").
mid-13c., from Old French humble, earlier humele,
from Latin humilis
"lowly, humble," literally "on the ground,"
from humus "earth." Senses
of "not self-asserting" and "of low birth or rank" were both in Middle
etymonline emphasis mine
In John Fletcher's 1623 play The Lovers' Progress, the heroine Calista declares both her honor and her humility to her friends, who support her in answering false charges of murder and adultery before the king of France:
The Envy, not the Love, of most that knew me',
This made me to
presume too much, perhaps
Too proud, but I am humbled; and if now
I do make it apparent, I can bear
Adversity with such a constant
patience as will set off my innocence...
Calista maintains her honor by acknowledging how the humiliating accusations have impacted her, and skewed the perceptions of those who will judge her. Her humble attitude is repaid when Lisander appears to corroborate Calista's testimony, expose the real murderer, and receive Calista, by order of the king, as his wife.
The expression was rooted in a broad cultural sense of honor in religious duty, and specifically, fervent confession of failure to perform that religious duty, as revealed in The works of Robert Harris from 1654:
And this every childe of God is able to say of himself,
leave all sin, or I would leave it;
either I perform all duty, or I
would do it:
wherein I come short, I am humbled, and do bewaile my failings;
but verily this is the mark I aim at,
this is the white I shoot at ...
This sense of honor in religious duty is steeped in mandates of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments:
... the princes of Israel and the king humbled themselves; and
they said, The LORD is righteous. And when the Lord saw that they
humbled themselves, the word of the Lord came to Shemaiah, saying, They have humbled themselves; therefore I will not
destroy them, but I will grant them some deliverance ... 2
... Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in
the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made
himself of no reputation, and ... he humbled himself, and became
obedient unto death, even the death of the cross... Philippians 2:1-11
... all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with
humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time... 1 Peter 5:1-7
King James Bible emphasis mine
The connection of honor and humility is not a purely religious notion. A quote from the atheist Richard Dawkins suggests the universal human thirst for sublime awe in something bigger and more powerful than self:
My eyes are constantly wide open to the extraordinary fact of
existence. Not just human existence, but the existence of life and how
this breathtakingly powerful process, which is natural selection, has
managed to take the very simple facts of physics and chemistry and
build them up to redwood trees and humans.
brainyquote.com emphasis mine
Another Dawkins quote suggests that even our best accomplishments have a way of knocking us down a notch:
Personally, I rather look forward to a computer program winning the
world chess championship. Humanity needs a lesson in humility.
brainyquote.com emphasis mine
A post-Christian culture has evacuated the notion of religious duty in the minds of many, but the intimate cultural connection between honor and humility remains deeply embedded in our minds, our friendships and our language. Gabe McCarty describes George Harrison in Beatles' start: Hard lives, humble hearts by Billy Watkins:
"As polite a fellow as you could ever meet," McCarty said. "That was
the first thing that struck you about him. He was real humble and
didn't like talking about himself much. Everybody around town liked
The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger emphasis mine*
Religious and secular alike can be disingenuous in uttering the phrase I am humbled, but the data behind the corpus suggests the phrase is designed to connect the speaker to the listener at a deep heart level with any or all of the implicit suggestions below:
As a fellow human being, I:
- was born naked and vulnerable
- have struggled through adversity
- owe a debt of thanks to those who helped me
- have my fair share of failures
- will pay my dues to family, friends and associates
- will stay connected to something bigger than myself
- expect to leave all my accomplishments behind in death
Malala Yousafzai's entire Nobel Peace Prize lecture expresses the essence of the phrase, but some snippets will suffice:
Bismillah hir rahman ir rahim. In the name of God, the most merciful, the most beneficent.
Your Majesties, ... dear sisters and brothers, today is a day
of great happiness for me. I am humbled that the Nobel Committee
has selected me for this precious award....
Dear brothers and sisters, I was named after the inspirational Malalai
of Maiwand who is the Pashtun Joan of Arc....
Some people, call me a "Nobel Laureate" now. However, my brothers
still call me that annoying bossy sister...
I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not. It
is the story of many girls. Today, I tell their stories too...
This is where I will begin, but it is not where I will stop. I will
continue this fight until I see every child, every child in school...