On humility, again.

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.

Humility 1Our 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.

Humility 3At 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.

Humility 4The 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 2After a while, then, I synthesized out of my friends’ contributions a working definition for myself, which carried me through a couple of years:

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.

Humility 5Just 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.

Humility 6They often say love is the engine. If love is the engine, and faith is the steering, and hope is the wheels—then, humility is the gear shift.

Humility 7

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    • Leonard Swidle on September 23, 2015 at 12:27
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    Always reflective, always penetrating, always insightful
    Love, Len

    • Name on September 26, 2015 at 04:53
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    whatever powers and steers and propels the vehicle of your soul, humility is its shell. a bulletproof one.

    it is a very self-serving virtue. for while its absence may be harmful to others, you are the sole beneficiary of its presence. thus, in the spirit of true humility, it doesn’t deserve a scrupulous examination.

    1. Dear Name (it would be nice to have some sort of name here),
      I am interested in your turn of the allegory. Why do you say humility is a bulletproof shell of the soul? What makes it so?
      As for its being a self-serving virtue, the very expression, of course, provokes a smile. If its absence harms others, then its presence benefits others — if in no other way, by protecting them from the potential harm that would be done by its absence. Right? I don’t believe the spirit of humility calls for anything like inattention, thoughtlessness, or fear of inward-focused reflection. If so, it would be inconsistent with mysticism and centering prayer. Let us examine scrupulously anything and everything. And, perhaps, do our best to regard the results with humility. 🙂 What do you say?

    • Name on October 3, 2015 at 03:47
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    firstly, allow me to apologize – i never meant to barge into your blog on account of a woeful lack of any qualifications to discuss its topics. but i couldn’t make sense of your gear shift allegory and, instead of asking to explain it, offered mine. barged in, that’s what it was. i promise to dissolve into my right state once the confusion is nearing some sort of clarification.

    with regard to protective functions of humility, you’ve just provided an example in your next entry. wouldn’t you agree that it is perhaps a small deficiency of humility that allows for your friend’s futile suffering?

    now, with your kind permission i shall excuse myself from the discussion on what lies between and beyond presence and absence, as it may turn into an ugly exercise in logic, far removed from the topic of interest.
    what may be of interest though is to designate the beneficiaries of humility. i’m failing to see any significant benefits of one’s humility to people far and near him or her. any tangential benefits to others are towered over by the benefits to oneself, the inner peace and strength and the protection that it brings. that’s why i called the virtue of humility self-serving. although your smile is a most delightful side effect.

    and it was certainly not my intention to invoke the horrors of thoughtlessness, inattention, or any kind of fear when i decried examination of humility. i only meant that concerning oneself with the level of one’s own humility might testify to this level not being at the very maximum. it also doesn’t seem to be a useful exercise, as i don’t believe in deliberate improving of this condition. after all, it is hardly possible to improve a quality rooted in selflessness by consciously engaging in a process with an ultimately selfish outcome.

    1. Thank you for this, my anonymous opponent. Let me say I disagree, I disagree, and I also disagree.

      Firstly, I keep a comments section in the hopes of engaging my readers’ opinions. A blog is not a book, so you never “barge” into it but come welcome with your discussion as long as it remains civil and open.

      Secondly, I do not believe that any subject — any at all — need be deliberately left unexamined. To me, an unexamined life is not so much “not worth living” as it is impossible to live. We as a species — and we philosophers and scholars especially — are driven naturally to concern ourselves with the essences and levels and functions and relationships of concepts, things, and laws external and internal. It would be bizarre for the field of ethics, which formulated the virtue of humility, to leave it then unturned and unformulated, unoperated on as all ethical concepts ought to be. And it would be equally bizarre for contemplatives and saints and for practitioners of ethics traditions not to engage in self-assessment, not measure themselves against the standards offered by their moral frameworks. It is difficult to examine virtue, but then, ethics is a difficult field. Of course, we turn our eye inward and ask if we possess, practice, embody that toward which we strive: love, faith, humility, courage, perseverance, compassion, and so on. This takes away none of the virtue. In fact, the world’s wisdom traditions tend to believe that self-examination is good for increasing virtue. Self-improvement certainly is not a selfish outcome of any process.

      Now, thirdly. I believe that our disagreement on this point comes precisely from the problem I described in my post: you and I are not talking about the same thing when we say “humility.” We have a problem of equivocation. You seem to be talking about a quality akin to modesty and self-denial, something that reduces a person’s thinking of self. This, of course, is hard to improve deliberately, for it would engage one in a paradoxical loop of thought, and I can see how excessive concern with one’s level of modesty might seem vain. However, this is not what I mean by humility, and that’s the reason I wrote the post. That’s why I defined it, that’s why I explained the history of my coming to the definition. Humility is not about self-denial, not about the amount of time we spend thinking about ourselves, not even directly about modesty, although a moderation in self-centeredness, genuine respect for others, and a healthy amount of altruism tend to come with humility. Because humility is a grand, universal, transcendent PERSPECTIVE. Humility is an enormously scaled yet nuanced framework of priorities — the right order of priorities, which allows one to be aware of one’s place in Creation, both tiny and precious, alongside all the others, equally tiny and equally precious. It is from this primary virtue of being able to see straight that the secondary virtues of modesty, respect, generosity, appreciation, etc. come. And it is this enormous perspective that we work on acquiring, that we examine, that we gaze inward to check: “What is my place in the universe?” In a very direct way, the question of humility is the question of the meaning of life. And vice versa.

      So yes, having this virtue, I’d say, is of great use to other people, much as not having it can be of great harm. Imagine a person near you with the understanding of right priorities, with respect for others and appreciation for them, who is not prone to jealousy or envy, who will share his talents and treasures easily, take a compliment gracefully, and do the same for others, who will follow orders without resentment and give them when leadership is needed. That’s a humble person we’re talking about, and chances are, he’s asked himself this question time and again.

      Now. I welcome our discussion, my friend, but if we are to continue it or start another one, I hope you will offer me the courtesy of your name. After all, you know mine. I am not asking for the intimate details of your life. Just your name. From the way you write, I have a feeling that I know you.

    • Name on April 5, 2016 at 00:45
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    I am terribly disappointed in myself for coming across as a savage who equates humility with modesty and may consider self-denial as an attribute of any virtue. Yet I shall risk further demise by doubling down on my interpretation of humility.
    But first, please be forewarned. As it is one of my unfortunate habits, I intend to illustrate my point of view sketching an extreme extension of human experience. Extremes allow for a cleaner, sharper picture but are always of poor taste. My example is certainly of very poor taste, and I will understand if you protect yourself by stopping reading right now.
    Well then, as you know, or should know if you read newspapers or history books, we live in a world where placing an alive human into an active volcano brings rain to the surrounding territory. now imagine somewhere far, in a small forsaken corner, there is that ridiculous province suffering from a terrible drought. nothing is wrong with the land – they have a perfectly good, fire-breezing volcano, just waiting to send the rain once properly fed. but instead of getting relief by throwing virgins, infidels, jews, gays or whoever else is designated to be worthy of the task, into the volcano, like any other volcano-fearing tribe on the planet, this particular province engages in endless discussions and referenda on the value of every life, happiness achieved through suffering and murder, and other nonsensically ethereal questions. and while they discuss, bicker, demonstrate, vote and re-vote, there is no rain, no crops, no food, famine sets in, children and elderly are starting to wither away.
    In comes man A, a man with a strong inclination to share his gifts. he assesses the situation and one day, in the wee hours of the morning he climbs up the volcano slope and jumps in, perhaps with an era- and personal background-appropriate curse word on his lips. all of a sudden rain pours down, fields of buckwheat and sea buckthorn come alive and the province is saved. (or not, it doesn’t matter.)
    Now let’s place a slightly different hero, man B, in the same situation. he too cannot walk away from his burden, but before going up the mountain he summons a tv crew and a small group of onlookers. plus, his grandma once told him that under certain conditions a platoon of virgins might come at his disposal in the afterlife. so when he jumps into the volcano, his tragically heroic image is recorded on film and in the awe-stricken heads of the witnesses. and the smile on his lips is intended for the hurriedly disrobing virgins. all of a sudden rain pours down…

    Is man B less heroic or less worthy of praise and gratitude than man A? absolutely not. we can’t belittle his sacrifice – man B jumped to his death and he did it to save the liberal freaks, that was his goal and motivation. the dash of vanity that i assigned to him is just a representation of his internal process and struggle. but who would be a prime suspect for possessing humility? in my humblest opinion, man A.
    What is the difference between them? they both shared their gift or, in a different language, did what they had to do. they both did it ultimately (even terminally) fixing their sight on others’ immeasurable worth. they both knew the order of universal priorities and had a clear picture of grand perspective – that and only that could allow for the ultimate sacrifice.
    The little difference between A and B is BARGAINING, pardon my caps.

    A man of humility doesn’t bargain, not with God, not with himself. he shares his gifts without bearing in mind his standing with God or people, his karma or his feeling of self-worth, without really considering his deeds and offerings to be any kind of gifts, in the common meaning of the word. he is not incapable of analysis of his deeds and how they are perceived, but it is ultimately irrelevant to him. thus, he accepts appreciation and displeasure of others, including his internal image of God, with equally impassive content. for appreciation and displeasure are just bargaining chips of the marketplace of life and eternity.

    It is in this sense the question of humility is the question of the meaning of life. do we live by the laws of expectations, acknowledgement, resentment, gratitude? or do we simply keep doing what must be done, regardless of any reward-punishment frame? you can easily consider both ways to be based on a grand perspective, on a scaled and nuanced framework of priorities, on the awareness of one’s place in Creation. both ways may be based on, as you called it, “right” perspective, priorities, and self-placement and thus result in the “right” outcome of good and improvement. both ways may be based on “wrong” perspective, priorities, and self-placement and thus result in horrible evil and destruction. in my understanding, humility is a “neutral” virtue. and it is in this sense that humility is a self-serving virtue, for by itself it doesn’t bring additional benefits to others, but it makes one’s path so much easier to align with his internal or internalized meaning of life.
    The difference between the way of bargaining and the way of humility comes from the intrinsic (divine or otherwise) source of the perspective, the priorities, and the self-placement. and it is the same source that grants us the feeling of the meaning of life. i propose that a man of true humility finds a rather different meaning of life than a man of bargaining, no matter how similarly virtuous, saintly and unselfish they may be.

    All that said, by no means I was trying to define the virtue of humility; I was just presenting a certain condition of human spirit that could be considered to be humility or to mimic its external manifestations.

    1. I like this, about the lack of bargaining. It’s intriguing and insightful. I have to think about it. Thank you.

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