Humility, part 2

The fourth difficulty some Unitarians have with humility is that we can be proud of the way we are, and we don’t want to let that go. Many of us have a lot of education. I do – because I enjoyed wrestling with recondite texts and then meeting with others in classrooms and seminars to talk about them. That was my idea of fun, and I had enough generational privilege to be able to do that.

Many of us tend to be proud of our schooling and erudition. Those years in school were good for something, we are convinced. They improved us. They made us better that we were. We might not like to admit out loud to the logical train that follows from that, but our egos put two and two together: if we now are better than our less educated former selves, and if our less educated former selves were the equals of their peers, then it logically follows that we now are better than those peers who didn’t get the improvement. So, yeah, there’s some hubris there.

It was years after my last degree before I gradually started to think of those years less in terms of how wonderful it was to get educated and more in the terms I just used: going to school was just something I enjoyed doing, and had the privilege to be able to. Yes, it changed and shaped me, but anything else I’d have done during those years would also have changed and shaped me. Experiences can make us wiser – if we have the temperament to let them – but experiences of reading books or of sitting in classrooms are no more likely to do so than experiences of lots of other kinds.

Still, the hubris of thinking otherwise is a common affliction among Unitarian Universalists, and I confess my own antibodies for that affliction do not always suffice to keep me symptom-free. That’s the fourth difficulty we might have with humility. Setting aside our hubris is no easy thing, but it’s crucial if we are to be more welcoming of diversity – including diverse paths to maturity that might not have included college.

A fifth difficulty we may have with humility might be that we’ve seen it used by the powerful as a way to keep the less empowered down. We’ve seen calls for humility that seemed more interested in other people being humble than the person doing the calling.

What the poor and oppressed need are allies that help empower them, that encourage them to pursue their power, and what they have too often gotten are songs of praise for how great it is to be humble. We’ve seen the seen the voices of the self-interested powerful rebuff calls for equality as overly prideful. “They should be more humble – not so arrogant as to demand any rights. People need to keep in their place.”

What’s going on there, of course, is that certain people have gotten used to a certain order of things. That order works for them. They are comfortable with it. It feels to them right and proper, so they’re nervous about upsetting that order. When they meet a call for change – a call from people who have not been treated fairly to be treated more fairly – that feels like arrogance, like people arrogating to themselves improper powers and authority.

There’s a close logical connection between arrogating and not keeping in one’s place – so the parties interested in keeping people in their place naturally find it arrogant when those people express a preference for not keeping to the place to which they have been relegated.

Having diagnosed the problem as one of arrogance, the privileged naturally respond by calling for humility. But the fact that this happens is not humility’s fault. The moral of this story is not that humility itself is a suspicious, but that humility has to begin at home, and that we should especially cultivate humility against passing judgment on other people’s arrogance.

One of the other slogans from the recovery community that you may have heard is that when you point the finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you. So when we feel an impulse to regard someone else as arrogant, it’s time to examine what arrogance in ourselves might be taking such offense at someone else’s behavior.

The point here applies to the “troublemakers” in the political realm, and also to those in your personal life – family members or coworkers who make trouble for you. As Pema Chodron reminds us, “It’s the troublemakers in your life who cause you to see that you’ve shut down, that you’ve armored yourself, that you've hidden your head in the sand.”

To recap: I’ve mentioned five difficulties we might have with humility, and offered a response to each:
  1. We might associate it with putting ourselves down. That’s not what we’re talking about.
  2. We might suppose that humility is superfluous, unnecessary. But I argue that it’s an important enabling virtue to give some attention to how our ego defenses can block development of general virtue.
  3. We might find it perplexing or self-contradictory to self-assess humility. But we don’t need to assess it – just stay on the path, paying attention to it.
  4. We have achievements that we are proud of – and for many Unitarians, it’s our intellects and our education. Yes, that is a difficulty, and it’s one that we can – and at our best, do – face head-on and try to get over.
  5. Humility has been invoked in the interests of keeping other people in their place. But the misuse of a concept doesn’t mean we should throw out the concept.
Let’s turn now to a kind of humility that Unitarian Universalists actually have taken to heart and embody. Our epistemic humility, I think, is one of the best things about the UU way. "Epistemic" means having to do with knowledge, thus "epistemic humility" is modesty about what we claim to know. Epistemic humility is pretty firmly etched into Unitarian Universalist DNA. This doesn't mean that there aren't some UUs who act like know-it-alls. I just mean that our institutional culture encourages modesty about what we can claim to know.

Many of us identify as agnostic, and even if that’s not our identity, we’re pretty comfortable not knowing. We recognize the limitations of our own perspectives. Some of us left the church of our childhood because it seemed to claim as certainty statements of which we just couldn’t be certain and weren't comfortable pretending to be. We found our way to a Unitarian Universalist congregation and noticed that it doesn’t deal in dogmatic certainties.

Instead, here, we heard things like, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.”
And: “Revelation is not sealed – we don’t know final truth. Our understanding is ever evolving.”
And: “All of us are smarter than any of us.”

Perhaps we became part of a Journey Group and noticed the importance that Unitarian Universalists place on hearing each other’s voices, rather than attending just to some voice of authority. The ingrained epistemic humility of the Unitarian Universalist way was refreshing, and felt right, and so: we stayed -- eventually signed the membership book and became Unitarian Universalists ourselves.

From our not-perfect-but-pretty-solid grounding in epistemic humility, we can build the attitudes a general wholesome humility. 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 – these 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. Yet here you are now in your wonderful and precious uniqueness – here to be forgotten later but here now to add your love to the onward flow of all things; to transfer forward the nutrients that made you, and filter 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.

May it be so.

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