In praise of humility

So I’m taking up a challenge from my canine correspondent Theothedog to write about humility… something dogs can probably teach humans a lot about, come to think of it.

Happily, humility follows on perfectly from the previous piece about love and truth. Humility perhaps uniquely combines those two qualities in one virtue.

How would you define humility? The opposite of puffed-up pride, conceit, arrogance and boastfulness? Yes, surely; but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. And what about thinking everyone else better than yourself? Definitely not, in my view.

Humility may be the most under-rated and understated – and I think misunderstood – of virtues. By definition it doesn’t draw attention to itself or blow its own trumpet. It’s not a cool virtue like courage, nor something that you might be tempted to show off like generosity.

So I’m writing in praise of humility, dragging it into the limelight it deserves.

Humility may be one of the most important and needed virtues in our society at the moment. It’s arguably one of the most Christlike. There can’t be all that many religions or belief systems where the leader and Lord is characterised as humble, even as a servant.

But sadly humility does have a bit of a PR problem. That’s partly because it’s just not a very glamorous and exciting virtue, but also I think due to false versions of humility masquerading as the real thing. I’m not sure that the popular view of what it means to be humble bears much relation to the real thing.

So firstly let’s look at a few of the things that humility isn’t.

Humility isn’t…

Humility isn’t thinking of yourself as a worthless worm and a miserable sinner who can do no right and whom God can only just about bring himself to love. That’s not humility, it’s pathologically poor self-image. Nor is humility about self-blame or self-loathing; that’s neurosis.

Humility isn’t shyness, reticence, lack of ambition and not putting yourself forward for promotion or public office. That’s just a natural introvert personality trait, coupled perhaps with social anxiety.

Humility isn’t thinking that everyone else is better, more capable and more worthy than you – that’s an inferiority complex. It’s not putting yourself down (which is often done so that others will lift you up); nor is it letting other people put you down, which is just colluding with abuse.

Humility isn’t burning yourself out serving others and never allowing your own needs to be met; that’s unhealthy, unboundaried self-martyrdom.

Humility isn’t an attitude of obsequious servility, the ‘ever so ’umble’ of Uriah Heep. That’s false humility, a social pretence and even a dishonest means of manipulating others.

Humility isn’t about making a show of belittling your achievements or abilities – ‘oh, it was nothing’; ‘it’s not very good’; ‘I’m not much of a painter’. That’s just false modesty, which is arguably a subtle manifestation of pride. (A more ‘Christian’ version of this is the ‘It’s no credit to me, it’s all God’ response to being praised. This sounds very holy but it’s often just spiritual one-upmanship.)

Nor is humility claiming incapability – ‘oh, I couldn’t do that, I’m no good at it’. Of course there are things we can’t do as well as others, but this falsely ‘humble’ approach is all too often a passive cop-out to avoid work or responsibility and let others take over.

I say all this as someone who’s often seen as humble. But in truth much of my ‘humility’ is a mix of introversion, neurosis, social anxiety and avoidance. (Or maybe I’m just putting myself down? ;))

Genuine humility

Most of these ‘false humilities’ are, I believe, emotionally and relationally unhealthy and even socially manipulative – none of which is spiritually helpful. By contrast, genuine humility is perhaps the most healthy attitude we can have towards ourselves and others. This may give us a rough working test of whether some behaviour or attitude is truly humble or not – does it promote or inhibit emotional and relational health and freedom?

I believe that true humility frees us from the desperate need to play these social games, to jockey for position or manipulate others to get what we want. The person who has learnt or developed true humility is free from giving a fig about his or her social status and standing, and is also free to ask for what they need and want.

So I believe that true humility is neither self-worshipping narcissism nor self-loathing neurosis, but a healthy and honest self-image.

It is neither exalting yourself above others nor denigrating and debasing yourself below them, but seeing yourself as equal in worth.

It’s neither always avoiding blame nor always blaming yourself, but acknowledging both the true extent and also limit of your culpability.

It’s neither self-martyrdom, giving endlessly without boundary or limit, nor self-centred grasping and withholding. Rather it’s a healthy balance of give and take, serving and being served. It’s a willingness to humble yourself and serve others, even others who are socially or intellectually ‘below’ you, as Jesus modelled when he washed the disciples’ feet. But it’s equally allowing others to serve you, whatever your or their social standing. Peter wasn’t willing to let his master wash his feet, but Jesus required it.

Humility is not thinking that the world owes you and that you deserve special treatment, but neither is it thinking that you deserve nothing and can’t expect or ask for anything.

True humility is neither attention-seeking nor attention-shunning. It doesn’t particularly seek out either the spotlight of attention or the limelight of praise, but it’s able to accept either when it’s called for.

So humility requires balance; it’s not an extreme position. But there are different kinds of balance. There’s the via media, the moderate middle way between extremes. But there’s also the balance of holding two apparently equal and opposite truths in tension – like justice and mercy, or indeed love and truth.

G.K. Chesterton suggests that this is the kind of God we serve – both living water and holy wine in full measure, not a weak wine-and-water mix; both fully Lion and fully Lamb, not a half-and-half hybrid. So it may be that we don’t need to be somewhere between self-loving and self-sacrificing, but can be fully both. Indeed, it’s perhaps only when we truly love ourselves that we’re free to truly sacrifice ourselves.

Self-knowledge

Humility then is a right, appropriate, proportionate attitude towards yourself and others. It’s loving your neighbour as yourself; not more than, but in the same way and to the same extent as you love yourself. And I’m hardly the first to point out that this does require that you first love yourself.

Humility requires self-knowledge, self-awareness, practising the old dictum to ‘Know Thyself’. It is a proper, honest, accurate assessment of your whole self – both your strengths and your weaknesses, both your true capability and your genuine limitations, both your goodness and your flawedness. This calls for the input of others we trust, as we can never know all our own blind spots without help. Asking for that feedback, receiving it and responding to it appropriately may also require a fair bit of humility.

Humility is knowing that you are both deeply flawed and deeply loved; that you’re hugely imperfect but completely accepted. You’re fundamentally ‘okay’ and lovable. And at the same time you share with all humans a natural propensity to mess up, to act in ways that militate against life and health and reality.

Humility then is not overly self-critical, always beating yourself up for every little slip. But neither is it merely letting yourself off the hook, failing to face problem areas and not bothering to put in the effort of dealing with your issues. Humility requires accountability, holding yourself accountable for your behaviour and growth, and allowing others you trust to hold you accountable.

And of course humility precludes us from condemning or overly criticising others, because we know that we too are subject to the same kinds of flaws; that we too need – and have – forgiveness.

Celebrating difference

Finally, I think humility involves the understanding that you are neither always right nor always wrong. The tribes and traditions and churches to which we belong do not have a monopoly on truth or goodness. So rather than seeking to convert others to our viewpoint, we do better to dialogue and to listen. We have a lot of good to share, and also a lot to learn and gain from others of different backgrounds and views. Humility involves teachability, the understanding that we’re never above needing to listen and learn and grow.

Humility is therefore not fearful of difference or diversity or ‘disunity’. It doesn’t try to shout others down or drown out dissident voices. It celebrates the other as well as the self. It allows other people to be themselves in all their glorious, complex, messy reality and also allows you to be who you really are without pretending or dissembling or hiding.

So humility isn’t trying to make everyone like you or be like you, to share your particular values and passions. But equally it isn’t trying to make yourself like or be like other people. Rather it’s getting on with being fully yourself and helping others be themselves.

In short, the way of humility is the way of Christ. It’s the way of love, of deep and genuine care for oneself and others. It’s also the way of truth, of honesty, of reality, of integrity. So at its best it’s the union of truth and love I was looking for last time.

Of course, humility is a fruit of the Spirit, not a natural human trait – though we all have it in seed form. Some people may seem more naturally humble than others, but as in my case such humility often contains a fair bit of poor self-image and natural reticence. I would suggest that true, lasting spiritual humility only grows and develops from on-going connection to Christ, the Servant Lord and the Humble King.

Though of course my old evangelical friends would remind me that humility, like love, is also partly a choice of the will.

PS unrelated to any of the above, today happens to be my/our 16th wedding anniversary!

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Psychology, Spirituality and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to In praise of humility

  1. Thank you. I really enjoyed reading that. I struggle with the balance between negative self-image, not wanting to seem like a smart-a*se, and desiring genuine humility. My conflict is also because I know I am clever and talented in lots of ways – but I hesitate to put myself forward because I don’t want to seem like I’m somehow making other people feel less about themselves. Now that I write it, that sounds ridiculous… Where lies the prize, I wonder – not pride, but not self-degradation either?

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    • Dear Sandy (sorry, I’m assuming that’s your name, apologies if not!), thank you very much for your comment. I can very strongly identify with your dilemma and your feelings about not wanting to make other people feel bad about themselves or less able than yourself! I’ve spent most of my life pretending to be less than I really am, and I still do that. I’m sure though that we’re called to be who we really are to the full, including all our giftedness, and that we don’t need to apologise for that.

      So I’m convinced that we’re meant to celebrate our abilities and achievements, but maybe just not in a crowing and boastful ‘I’m the greatest and you’re all rubbish’ kind of way. And to balance it, we also celebrate others’ achievements, and acknowledge our own genuine limitations and weaknesses – without pretending that we have additional ones or that we’re worse than we really are.

      But I’m still working on it and probably will be for many years to come!

      All the very best with your own journey, and go on, I dare you to shout a bit about your greatness… 🙂

      Harvey (The Evangelical Liberal)

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  2. theothedog says:

    To my mind this is quite masterly: outstandingly clearly and concisely expressed, but very obviously based on real, and sometimes painful experience. The two insights I find particularly valuable both concern what you might call the relational outworkings of humility: that humility is to do with ‘being fully yourself and helping others be themselves’; and the ‘rough working test’ that true humility ‘promotes’ (rather than inhibits) ’emotional and relational health and freedom’. That’s a useful, and possibly more outward-looking variant, isn’t it, on the old Jesuit litmus test of whether something energizes or deadens? Certainly, the more I apply test cases to it, the more it appears to work in practice.

    Two other reactions might be worth mentioning briefly. I share (and how!) the tension that, having undergone a different but also similar spiritual ‘journey’ as you, I now often seem too willing to ignore my failings and failures, whereas formerly I would be to harsh on myself. Accountability is indeed a key check here: in my experience especially the kind of accountability one enters into with a trusted spiritual director or ‘soul friend’. Finally, the only point at which I registered a (by my standards) mild ‘humph’ of disagreement is the one where you imply at least that lack of ambition can be seen as a sign of false, rather than true humility. In my work context, to be honest, the people whom I admire most and reckon to have seen the clearest flashes of Christ in have always been those who have had no interest whatever in climbing the greasy pole. Not that we actually disagree, of course: I’d fully endorse the paragraph about playing social games, jockeying for position, and so on. And I suppose what I want most to say, I hope without seeming in the least patronizing, is that your own tendency towards the unhealthier kind of ‘humility’ (which, it goes without saying, I share) shouldn’t ever lead you to doubt just how good, beneficial, wise and, above all, sane these blogs are.

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    • Thank you! Yes, you’re right, there is a similarity with the ‘energizes or deadens’ litmus test. I tend to go along with the view that true human flourishing (in all its Christ-like fullness) is what we’re aiming for, and perhaps that’s seen above all in the flourishing of our relationships (i.e. the outworking of love).

      I do actually agree with you about ambition and the drive to climb the greasy pole. I certainly don’t see ambition of that kind as in any way a healthy spiritual quality! I think what I was trying to express was that people like me (i.e. intellectually-oriented introverts!) sometimes suffer from a complete lack of drive to achieve anything meaningful or to put themselves forward for anything, and can spiritualise that as just not being ambitious. Whereas in my case it’s really often just laziness and a desire to avoid attracting negative attention.

      Wow, ‘good, beneficial, wise and sane’ – that’s quite an accolade. I shall treasure it and endeavour to live up to it!

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