Humility. I approach this topic with a feeling that a sermon on humility can’t be given. Words about humility can’t be worth saying, for as soon as I think I know something about the topic, I thereby prove that I don’t have it. As the saying goes, the minute you think you’ve got humility, you’ve lost it.

I might believe that humility is a virtue, and I might actively seek to cultivate it. But if I believe for a minute my efforts are doing some good, in that minute, whatever good they’ve done is wiped away. Even if you don’t say anything and modestly keep it all to yourself, the ego is working away inside to figure out some way to hijack whatever you do and turn it into a self-glorifying story.

There’s a cartoon of a young zen monk sitting cross-legged and talking to his cat. He’s saying: “You know, these Zen practices are definitely a short path to ego loss. Almost right away my illusion of self began to fade. Soon I will be the most advanced novice in the monastery.”

It’s true. The ego might be an illusion, but it’s a darn persistent one. You might see through that illusion and recognize that the spinning bundle of energies called “you” is no more distinct than a small whirlpool in a river is distinct from the water of the river – but in the next moment you’re congratulating yourself for this insight. The ego finds a way to turn even egolessness into reinforcement of itself.

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
Thus Martin Luther wrote, “true humility, therefore never knows that it is humble…for if it knew this, it would turn proud from contemplation of so fine a virtue.” And St. Teresa of Avila said humility is hidden from the one who possesses it.

There’s the story of a group of clergy that would gather in one of their sanctuaries to engage together in a practice of humility. They would gather round the altar and wail toward the rafters, “I am nobody, I am nothing.” They were overheard on a few of these occasions by the janitor sweeping in the hall. One day he decided to try it himself. He slipped into the empty sanctuary, stood by the altar, gazed toward the ceiling, and cried out, “I am nobody, I am nothing.” Two of the clergy happened to be walking by and looked in. “Oh,” said the one to the other, “look who thinks he’s a nobody.”

Thus we are apt to co-opt ourselves, make our own humility into aggrandizement. Arguably many of the virtues are this way. Humility may offer the clearest case, but it might also be that the one who says she is courageous, isn’t. The one who proclaims his patience, will turn out to not be very patient. Beware of someone who makes a point of insisting how honest they are. It’s when we think we are wise that we are most like to be foolish. So maybe it isn’t just humility that is hidden from the one who possesses it. Perhaps courage, patience, honesty, wisdom, and many other virtues are aspirations we are better off never supposing we have attained.

Maybe. Still. Though there is something suspect about dwelling too much on any positive quality, just saying “I have a high level of humility” has a flavor of self-contradiction that saying “I have a high level of compassion” does not.

So what I think most of us do is come at it from the other side: by examining ourselves for signs of vanity or arrogance. These – if we aren’t too narcissistic or sociopathic -- we trim back – either as a matter of expedience, sincere contrition, or just growing weary of being full of ourselves – and as to whether, through this process, we approach humility, we don’t ask ourselves that.

David Hume (1711-1776)
Moreover, one might suspect that humility is not really a virtue at all. How is abasing ourselves – refusing a healthy self-esteem – a good thing? Baruch Spinoza in the 17th-century warned against “thinking too meanly of oneself.” David Hume in the 18th century had strong doubts about the whole set of qualities that he called “monkish virtues” – “celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, [and] solitude.” He said they tended to “stupefy the understanding and harden the heart; obscure the fancy, and sour the temper.” He went on to say they
“serve no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment.”
Thus Frank Lloyd Wright quipped:
“Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.”
Indeed, humility has an unfortunate history of being urged upon those abused or treated unjustly. The downtrodden and oppressed have for too long been told to humbly submit to what is wrong. In the hands of those at the top of the social hierarchy, recommendations of humility are a tool for shoring up hierarchy lest it crumble from the weight of its injustices. That’s an abstract way to say it, but to African Americans, historically, the consequences of being perceived as uppity have been anything but abstract. The blows and degradations dealt to women told to humbly submit to abusive relationships are anything but abstract. So contemporary philosopher Stephen Hare argued that humility is “at best a saving grace for the mediocre and at worst an excuse for passivity towards human wrongs.”

Properly understood, however, humility, like many other virtues, is a middle way between extremes. Vanity and arrogance are at one extreme, and denial of one's own worth and dignity would be at the other.

In Medieval times, the interest in avoiding vanity and arrogance, and in magnifying the glory of God by putting ourselves down, led to extremes of self-abasement. Thomas Aquinas said that humility involved “self-abasement to the lowest place.” It was a time when self-flagellation counted as a spiritual practice, as did meditations upon how wretched, vile, and corrupt one was. No wonder that Spinoza and Hume, as the Western world turned from its Medieval period to modernity, helped articulate the emerging new sensibility by criticizing the Medieval conception of humility.

Whether one’s energies go into thinking about how great one is or into thinking about how lowly and worthless one is, the energies are nevertheless fixated on the self. Self-abasement and self-aggrandizement have in common a preoccupation with self.

Humility, properly conceived, however, is a decentering of the self – not a putting down, but a shifting of focus away from. Thus, as C.S. Lewis noted, "humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less."

The word “humility” comes to us from the Latin “humilis” meaning "lowly, humble," literally "on the ground.” It’s related to “humus,” originally meaning "earth." While the Medievals emphasized the lowliness of the Earth, and thought of it as vile and corrupt, we might, instead, draw a different moral from this etymology. Humility is being well-grounded. It is rooted in that ground from which all life comes -- rather than being an uprooted bubble of self-preoccupation.

The Latin "humus" has evolved from a general reference to earth to a more specific meaning. Humus today means the organic component of soil, formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material by soil microorganisms and essential to the fertility of the earth. How lovely! Humility, then, is being fertile, supporting life growing from you and through you.

When, recognizing that a self-centered life is barren and sterile, we give ourselves over to nourishing growth and life around us, then we are people of humility.

When we take in the resources available to us, the influences and teachings that fall upon us like leaves; and when we practice at the skills and arts of compassion, thus decomposing those resources and learnings into organic matter -- sustenance for others -- then we are people of humility.

When we become thus the ground of flourishing for the whole interrelated ecosystem around us, then we are people of humility.

This humility is not helped by denying that we have worth and value. What we have learned since the Medievals is that the Earth may be low, but it is not vile, wretched, or corrupt. Nor does the earth bother with denying its value. It doesn’t bother with affirming its value either. It just takes in everything, and offers back everything.

Shifting the metaphor from earth to water: like water, all things flow. Flowing water is a necessity of life. The body’s need is not so much to have water as for water to be continually flowing through it. (Letting it out is as necessary as taking it in!) We are as drops of water, here to participate in the flow of existence, wholeheartedly, with all our being.

I don’t believe we are here to make our indelible mark. That’s just ego talking. Saxon White Kessinger uses water to make this point:
Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego’s in bloom
Sometime when you take it for granted
You’re the best qualified in the room,

Sometime when you feel that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul;

Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining
Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.

You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop and you’ll find that in no time
It looks quite the same as before.
We aren't here to make our mark or be remembered, but simply to add our portion to the flow of the world.

It took the whole universe to make you. It took the big bang, and the Hubble constant, which I don’t really understand, and the speed of light being what it is. It took gravity -- which is so weird! Why should gravitational attraction exist -- proportional to the mass of the objects and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them? But it does, and gravitational attraction pulled hydrogen atoms together into stars, which forged the heavier elements included in the formation of our planet. And that's just the beginning of what it took to make you.

It took carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen coming together into certain proteins with a shape that, like a mold, made copies of itself from surrounding material, which grew into cells, which variegated into all the life forms we have.

It took sunlight and soil, the water cycle of rain, and the chance encounter of your parents’ first meeting, and their parents’, and the million chance encounters of two million of your ancestors. It took a lot of sex to make you!

And, sadly, not all of it was what we would call consensual – and the accumulated generations of wounding from that reality is also a part of what made you.

It took millennia of plagues, famines, war, conquest, enslavement and genocide to make the modern world that made you.

It also took occasional acts of kindness and love.
It took spiritual insights and scientific insights.
It took explorers and poets,
judges and codifiers of laws,
artists and musicians,
and countless generations of lives devoted to the tending of home and children.
It took 4,000 years of schools and teachers.

It took all of that to make you. It took the whole universe, and what it made is unique and precious. Your particular combination of skills and talents; knowledge, memories, and insights; quirks and preferences; habits and hopes – the sound of your voice -- that way you move your hand -- the things that make you laugh -- the things that make you cry -- your face. They have never existed before all together in one person, and never will again.

And here you are to bring all of who you are to this world we share. Not in order to leave your mark. The world is marked up enough.

Not in order to be remembered. Even the most famous names in history are to us abstractions, just names and a few deeds or words. The fullness of your personhood is held in the consciousness of those who know you now. None of them hold all of it; they each hold a part. So when you are gone, the collective memory of you diminishes with the subsequent passing of each person who knew you – until nothing is left but the dry abstractions in records. Whether those records are few or voluminous; widely noted, pored over, and celebrated, or scarcely glanced at -- either way the dynamic fullness of your personhood cannot be revived to be known again. Even if your name is remembered, your name is not you. All of us, including you, will be, in every important sense, forgotten.

Moreover, what desiccated details of our lives future generations may judge worth retelling is not our concern. That is a part of their project of crafting the story of who they are and how they came to be, and we must leave that project to them.

Yet here you are now in your wonderful and precious uniqueness – here to be forgotten but here now. You're here to add your love to the onward flow of all things; to transfer forward the nutrients that made you, filtering out some of the toxins you’ve also absorbed. You’re here to add your creative new ideas, your reiteration of favorite old ideas, your soaring dreams, and your careworn anxieties to the ongoing regenerating and evolving of life.

If words about humility help us keep this in mind, then perhaps they are worth saying.

No comments:

Post a Comment