I return to this subject years after I wrote about it, briefly, as a “thought of the day” on June 11, 2012. (You can find the passage now on the “Older Thoughts of the Day” page.) I return to it because I had thought of it on and off for years, and never stopped after I wrote. And the other day I was reading through the Rule of Benedict and came to chapter 7. Chapter 7 is about humility.
I have always found humility to be one of the more difficult concepts to discuss: convoluted, controversial, and vague. Too many people mean too many different things by it, and we use the word too often in what feels like questionable contexts. To hear celebrities say that some high award or another is “humbling” has become a cliché. My preoccupation with this virtue began some years ago, when I realized that a number of people in my life explicitly credited me with possession of a profound degree of humility, while others thought I woefully lacked it. It heartened me to note that among the former there was a preponderance of people I thought to be wise and Spirit-filled, but it bothered me that among the latter there was a preponderance of people who knew me well. In any case, in trying to understand what about me caused such disparate perceptions, I tried to understand what they meant by “humility” and ran into a problem. There seemed to exist innumerable definitions, not all of them having to do actually with humility.
Our culture has evolved, much for good and much for ill, from the roots of ancient wisdoms, through the crushing burden of the Dark Ages and the rebellious yoke-breaking of Modernity, to hold up as pinnacles of human value freedom, self-determination, and achievement. It is understandably so, for we have fought hard for these things against our own human excesses of oppression by the powerful of the powerless – not that they are over – in the times of serfdom, fiefdom, and slavery. The value of freedom and self-determination, the value of individual rather than inherited achievement is the value of human person, and it is progress. Yet naturally, inexorably we take these values also to excess and become vain and hungry for fame, and we worship control, investment, and individualism.
At the same time, however, in the perpetual and undeniable paradox of life, we are still holding on to the old goods: humility, simplicity, sacrifice, collectivism. They are in our myths and proverbs, and they are in Scriptures, we just don’t know quite how to handle them. I can see a tinge of embarrassment on my pew neighbors’ faces when they hear proclaimed, “Blessed are the meek.” We stand and wonder how we can interpret this one away. Because meekness doesn’t work in our society. We admire a noble spirit, but it has to fight for itself; meek nobility is trampled, and then it becomes someone’s burden and does nobody any good. We feel compassion for the meek. We take care of them. We don’t want to be them.
The problem is, our world has gotten really complicated. So much history has come into confluence to shape us, so many cultures have come together to make us, so much politics, so many fears, so many influences, teachings, and temptations, so much anger to rebel against, so much despair to run from – we don’t really know what we want. We don’t always know what we value. We value simplicity, but we like the way it feels to have a fancy car – people looking, admiring, respecting. We value cooperation, but we like to be winners – people talking, admiring, respecting. We cannot feel the worth of an unacknowledged achievement. And in the baffling whirlpool of values – biblical and modern, myth and psychology, conscience and peers – it has become difficult to tell dignity from pride, wisdom from shrewdness, kindness from team-playing. Humility from inability to take a compliment, also known as “false modesty.”
This isn’t a problem for everyone, not always. For some of us. Sometimes.
Through the years, as I asked people for their definitions of humility, I heard some equate it with modesty, others point to outward manifestations of self-denial or self-doubt—essentially, either low requirements of the world or low opinion of oneself. Neither seemed like the answer to me. My godmother, a Sister of the Holy Child Jesus, once said that humility was an ability to accept thanks for sharing one’s gifts. That sounded different—and good—certainly addressing the problem of false modesty, but somehow tangential to the point of the virtue in question, and yet several Sisters told me something very similar. Someone else gave me a sentence too general but beautiful: “Humility is knowing who you are and what you are for.”
Humility is the ability and willingness to share one’s gifts and to accept appreciation without losing sight of others’ immeasurable worth.
In other, more colloquial words, if you think that being better at something makes you better than someone, you probably lack humility. But realizing that we possess our unique gifts and that you indeed are special in what you are while others around you are special in what they are, you then are free to love without liking or being liked, free to be the best you know you can be, free to lead and to follow with dignity and with respect. Yes, “we’re all special” is not just empty rhetoric.
Just about three years have passed since the birth of this working definition, and it’s helped, but the concept of humility has never stopped bothering me. It seemed like I haven’t quite put my finger on the heart of…something about it. Not just what it is but why it’s so important. What’s the big deal about being humble? Why does St. Benedict devote so much time to this one virtue?
I still can’t say that I know. But about a year ago an answer began to coalesce, more in my heart than in my mind, as I stood on the roof of St. Scholastica Monastery over Lake Superior. Nothing outwardly spectacular happened at that moment – often our most profound moments are like that – I just experienced very acutely the sense of size: the grandeur of Creation, the smallness of each thing in it (see “On the big and small”). I realized with special clarity how similarly tiny, in comparison to the unfathomable whole, are the deeds and fame of the most famous and of the completely unknown on this little planet of ours.
It was then that it occurred to me that humility is such a crucial virtue because it sets in order, within our beings, the priorities and connections of the universe. It helps us understand, defines, and maintains our place in the world. It makes us feel truly how insufficient and how necessary the good we do is in the context of the whole of Creation, and it drives us to pour the trickle of our effort into the stream of the others’ efforts. It is humility, by giving us perspective, that lets us know that we are tiny and precious and so lets us survive any harsh reality and drives us forward. For our every aspect, every gift, every talent and skill is our humble contribution to the whole of Creation.