Who are you, in truth? Who am I…in truth? It is a question that requires more than a passing fanciful thought, does it not? The words “in truth” are also desperately important, and seem to be growing more important daily as we continue to seek new ways of building image, new ways of fertilizing jealousy, new ways of deception, new ‘-isms,’ and new ways of developing “grass is greener over there” mentalities. I won’t lament this nonsense here, but will seek instead for something old fashioned…. something that seems to be thrown off and a bit forgotten in our age of self-worth hyper-realities and echo-chambers. I seek humility.
Our dictionary defines ‘humility’ this way
- a modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness.
I find this definition to be quite limiting and maybe even a little askew from the truth. It is indeed common across cultures and religions to think of humility as debasing oneself or, as Wikipedia states in its overview, “Outside of a religious context, humility is defined as the self-restraint from excessive vanity…”. This debasement, or self-effacement seems to be the most common conception of the term. There is a truth in that yes, yet there are those who wonder of a different and richer definition that may create a more accurate vision of what ‘humility’ actually is. To start, I think C.S. Lewis gets closer in his description of a humble man in Mere Christianity:
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
– Mere Chrisitanity; C.S. Lewis
Worth hearing again. “He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
Even closer might be Rabbi Jonathon Sacks’ notion in Greatness is Humility that “humility is an appreciation of oneself, one’s talents, skills, and virtues. It is not meekness or self-deprecating thought, but the effacing of oneself to something higher. Humility is not to think lowly of oneself, but to appreciate the self one has received.”
It means honoring others and regarding them as important, no less important than you are. It does not mean holding yourself low; it means holding other people high. It means roughly what Ben Zoma meant when he said, “Who is honored? One who honors others.”
– Greatness is Humility; Rabbi Jonathon Sacks
And finally, though I’m not necessarily a fan, Immanuel Kant states that humility is “that meta-attitude that constitutes the moral agent’s proper perspective on himself as a dependent and corrupt but capable and dignified rational agent” If I could, in all my foolishness, modify the great Kant, I would change it to this: humility is that meta-attitude that constitutes the moral agent’s proper perspective on himself as a dependent and corrupt but incapable and decidedly irrational agent.
So, I suppose I believe that a better general definition of humility may be something like this:
- a right or accurate view of one’s own importance; humbleness.
I’ve decided to leave “humbleness” in my definition because all people, when thinking correctly and soberly about themselves, would most assuredly be humble. But this is the problem isn’t it? We seem to be in an age where people are thinking less and less correctly or soberly about any situation — not least of which when thinking about one’s self. We are consumed with image and the troubling idea of “self-worth.” We are constantly bored. We are jealous and envious of others. We prop up houses of cards that fall in the lightest breeze. We are notorious complainers, vicious to others. How could that kind of people know intimately what humility is? How could we have an accurate, right view of one’s self, or our own importance? Søren Kierkegaard once wrote,”a person who chooses his own identity is ‘a king without a country’ and his subjects live in conditions where rebellion is legitimate at every moment.”
There is another aspect to humility (other than ignorance of it) that is equally concerning, and that is false humility. I myself have lived somewhat ignorant of true humility to some extent much of my life, but with chagrin, I confess I know false humility deeply. Though I may not have descended to the level that Lewis describes: “…a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody,” I do know I have been in conversations where instead of saying a simple “thank you,” I have said “oh, no, no no…it was nothing… it was not my best work… I wasn’t that good… etc,” but in my heart I was grinning with a sickly pride, saying, “oh yes, tell me more. Describe in detail what you thought was great. Gush please.” Ouch. …painful, and alarmingly common for me over the years. I was all too often creating an image unto myself, manipulating myself and others, and masking a gross pride. I wonder if this sounds familiar to anyone else.
I believe it is worth searching intensely for true humility and to get sober about one’s self. The consequence of such action may be worth the effort. I believe the consequence of humility… true humility, is: freedom.
Oh, I see the immediate response of the brain as plain as day because I have had the responses myself. “If I go for real humility I am going to miss out!” “I will miss out on potential praise from others.” “I will miss out on opportunities.” “I will not be allowed to be angry at being wronged by another.” “I will not be loved the way I think I should.” “I will miss out on the great prizes of life if I don’t just act humble for a show, but am actually humble!” Well, yes, you may. But you will be free. Free from what?
This type of thinking flies in the face of what society and culture is teaching, I know that. “Self-love” is the doctrine of the day (and false humility falls under the heading “self-love” also, lets be honest about that). Even if this doctrine of self isn’t necessarily preached from a mountaintop, I see it on every street corner and in most people’s eyes. Sometimes I feel it quite strongly, the pull away from humility and towards service of me, myself, and I. Humility requires letting go, and that is one of the very things humans never want to do. Oh, we must be the captains of our own fates, mustn’t we? With this understood, in my very heart I believe that a transformative and life-giving humility requires a supernatural force to assist its generation and flourishing. Kierkegaard stated the formula to essentially achieve a correct view of self and eradication of despair, thus triggering true humility: when “the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.” I trust you understand what he is suggesting here — if not, answers can be found in either his book The Sickness unto Death or more plainly seen throughout the New Testament.
There is no doubt a mountain of other things to be said on this subject (and I am certain I have failed in some of my generalizations and descriptions above), yet as a moderate conclusion to the matter here, I have learned that I cannot trust my own heart and what it desires. I have been disappointed in the results too many times. I have looked back on my actions, either accidental, well-meant, or foolish, and have seen them to be wavering, many times self-seeking, and at best the results are short-lived. But what joy! I am tasting a true humility more and more these days because I am grounding myself transparently to the power that established me. I am letting go through a power not my own and building a correct and right view of my worth as a human being on a cornerstone that will never be moved. I am sacrificing more for others. I am able to let go and be happy for other people and finding myself worrying less about how I am perceived. I am tasting, like drops of water in an immense desert, freedom and joy. I wish this for you, (and me), dearly.
Be ye humble in truth.