My heart took a dive recently when I was asked to speak on the subject of humility, because humility, at least how I understood it as of a few weeks ago, was just about dead last on my list of favorite things. It was altogether too closely associated with bowing and scraping and making oneself pitiful. With not taking credit where credit is due, like women of my generation who were taught to say “oh gosh, it was nothing” of a towering achievement that might have been months or years in the making. And with unattainable role models like Gandhi, with his skinny little butt wrapped in diaper.
Humility is confusing. Definitions are often contradictory and there are a lot of associations floating around about it, a lot of feelings. And to complicate matters further, there’s a sense that we’re supposed to have a measure of it, but not too much. Like pride, and vitamin D. (Pride is confusing too, but on the whole it tends to be celebrated in our culture. It’s The Few, the Proud, not the Few, the Humble.)
I looked first to metaphor and came up with Humble Pie. It seemed like a pleasant coincidence that this central image revolved around one of my truly favorite things, food.
Humble Pie, according to Miriam Webster, is “a figurative serving of humiliation usually in the form of a forced submission, apology, or retraction.” We eat humble pie. Etymologically speaking this is a bit off, for the term probably derives from umble pie, made from deer organs, and though that would not be my cup of tea, umble pie doesn’t necessarily connote forced submission.
But notice how potent are the food metaphors around humility, the images mirroring how being proven wrong is hard to swallow. “Eating humble pie” is the least of it. A stronger version is “eat crow,” like the carrion bird. There’s “eat dirt,” “eat your hat,” and of course the still stronger version, eat you-know-what. All of these refer to something awful we do to ourselves to demonstrate just how wrong we really are.
We could go further here and note the sexual analog – go you-know-what – but what I’d like to point out is how seamlessly we’ve slipped from humility to humiliation. We routinely conflate the two in our culture. They’re just four letters apart and share a certain bowed-head visual. A certain feeling of “less than” or “lower than.” The Oxford Dictionary concurs by defining humility as “a modest or low view of one’s own importance,” and offering meekness, diffidence, and unassertiveness as synonyms.
So let’s tease them apart, shall we – humility and humiliation – and maybe come up with an understanding of what humility really is, and how to live a life of humility that doesn’t have us facedown on the pavement.
Humiliation is a violation of one’s humanity that all too often involves nasty transgressions to the body – whether self-inflicted, as in eating humble pie or swearing allegiance to a god not your own on pain of death – or inflicted upon someone less powerful than the person doing the inflicting. Let me just remind us what we did to prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Humility on the other hand – whatever it is – is somehow a genuine virtue, and indeed one of the top seven – chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility – that stand in opposition to the seven deadly sins. “True humility,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” I guess. But what the heck does it mean, and is it even relevant in the 21st century?
Usage peaked in 1830, declining since then to a mere trickle. These days, humility is mostly the province of religious and ethical circles, where it refers to one’s relationship to God, God’s purpose, and God’s power to fix what’s broken. In Catholic theology, humility is considered the foundation of the spiritual life because it subjects reason and will to God. Indeed, virtually every religion in the world counsels humility before a vastly greater power. So does the Alcoholics Anonymous program that has saved the lives of some of my best friends. The twelve steps begin —
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
And so on. This is powerful stuff, but aside from religious and spiritual practices, the secular world does little more than give lip service to humility. It’s quaint – a musty antique wrapped in a dishcloth and smelling faintly of white pepper. It’s supposed to be valuable, like Aunt Marion’s china, but we have no clue what it is or what it’s worth.
To the contrary, we value bold individualism, aggression and achievement. We Built That, right? The Few, the Proud. The Greatest Nation on Earth. Where fortune favors the strong, humility is seen as weak, even pathetic.
But humility isn’t pathetic and it isn’t weak. In the work I’ve done recently to understand it, I’ve come to appreciate humility as a fine thing, subtle, necessary, and a great relief. Let me propose a paradigm shift in the way we understand humility. Not as a hierarchical, two-dimensional relationship, with one party down and the other up, but spherical, as it were – where we stand in relation to all that is.
Look at that [pale blue] dot,” writes Carl Sagan. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
Harsh, yes, but oddly comforting in that it gives us no choice but to admit we are very, very small and not terribly important. Sagan is not all that different from my husband, who, when I asked him how he understood humility, lifted his cocktail glass and said, “Knowing that we are but a pimple on the ass of time.”
Then I asked my 25-year-old son, Sam, who is given to occasional bouts of colossal arrogance, but is also a student of philosophy who reads Plato in Greek and poses questions at the dinner table along the lines of “What is friendship?” That stuff can send you down the rabbit hole faster than you can say Alice in Wonderland, but I asked nonetheless.
Sam said that humility was knowing one’s worth – not conceited or arrogant, and likewise not too self-deprecating, but just right, like little bear’s porridge. Harder than it sounds, to be sure – and it does beg the question of how worth is determined – but I like how it evokes the sense of knowing one’s place, not in humiliation, like a slave, but balanced in the big, round scheme of things.
I consulted at last the font of wisdom, and so help me it all clicked into place. “Humility,” says Wikipedia, “is variously seen as the act or posture of lowering oneself in relation to others – or conversely, having a clear perspective and respect for one’s place in context.” And here all this time I’d been thinking of it only in the former sense, of lowering oneself in relation to others – and that, either to do it myself or see it done, I could not abide.
But once I made the shift – from humility as “less than” to humility as “in place” – then things started clicking. I began to notice all the ways it showed up.
Like many, I felt angry and bewildered by the lack of accountability for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but as I saw the thousands of people streaming into the streets in communities throughout the country, and staying there for days on end, I had to recognize that though I might be sympathetic, and I have a pretty decent imagination, I also have what is often referred to as “white privilege” – the license, the freedoms, the opportunities I take for granted as a Caucasian. I am humbled by the courage I see in those communities and by the fact that I cannot not truly know what it’s like to be a young black man in 21st century America.
I’m also humbled by the recognition that I do not understand what motivates people to go shoot up the offices of a French satirical magazine, or kidnap Nigerian schoolgirls, or blow up an abortion clinic. Trust me, I feel perfectly at liberty to hate them and what they do – the failure of my imagination does not preclude taking a position – but I am not so puffed up that I can’t see that something motivates these folks, even though I don’t understand what it is.
As a matter of fact, there’s a lot I don’t understand – like financial derivatives, or string theory, or how to knit – and I’m OK with that.
I am humbled by yoga, and not just in the classes where everyone else is 40 years younger than I am. I like to think of myself as strong, so I have walked into many a class thinking “I can do this, I can prop myself up on an elbow with one leg wrapped around my tricep and the other leg pointed at the ceiling” … and walked out with my back pinched and my shoulders in agony. Needless to say, this is no way to practice yoga. “Remember again,” says my teacher, and so every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday I go back to square one.
I am humbled by history – by those who suffered so I could vote, by those who took terrible risks so I could be free from disease, by everyone who had and still has the courage to bring forth another child into this terrifying world.
I am humbled by birth and by death, by seeing myself getting older and my kids grow up and away, and knowing that sooner or later, I will turn into compost and live only in the memory of a few people who themselves will eventually be forgotten.
Maybe it’s a choice. Maybe it’s a fragment of wisdom I’ve come to later in life. But I find all this comforting. “There is something in humility which strangely exalts the heart,” wrote Saint Augustine, and so help me, I think he was right. It’s such a relief not to be in charge of everything! All that striving to be important and relevant and sure of one’s opinions, all that pretending you’re doing it all yourself, without help – that’s exhausting. I’m not one who believes that God has a plan for me, but I’m relieved nevertheless to sink into my comfy little nook in the universal web of all existence.
We’re really dealing with two questions here. The first is what humility is, and the second, and to me more compelling question is how to practice it, day after day. How are we to understand our own self worth and our place in context, and understanding all that, how are we supposed to put one foot in front of the other?
Carl Sagan answers the question in terms of the pale blue dot. “To me, [the distant image of our tiny world] underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
To me, the deeper answer is gratitude, the handmaiden of humility. Let’s circle back to food. It’s always my touchstone. I was given a little book for Christmas called How to Eat, by Thich Nhat Hanh, the wonderful Buddhist spiritual leader.
In some traditions, monastics want to take their minds off food and focus on the virtues of a spiritual life. In my tradition, we do the opposite. We just focus on the food. We see the food as the cosmos. In the Catholic tradition, in the Eucharist, you see the piece of bread as the body of Jesus. In the Buddhist tradition, we see the piece of bread as the body of the cosmos. Everything is there. When you chew it mindfully, without thinking, you can see very well all that the piece of bread contains. That is why, when you take a bite of the bread and chew it mindfully, you are truly in communion with all of life.
Itadakimasu, yo. That’s the name of this blog and the special prayer Japanese people say before each meal, a blessing not only of the food but an expression of thanks to the sun, the rain and the fertile earth, to the farmers, the plants and the animals, to the truckers who drive our food to market, the shopkeepers, the cooks, and those who do the dishes. It is humility and gratitude all wrapped into one little tongue twister.
Say it out loud: EE-TA-DA-KEE-MA-su. Say it loud and clear, with equal emphasis on each syllable until that last little su, which slip in like the shadow of an S. When you say it, imagine yourself as if from a far-away cosmic camera, sitting wherever you are, peering into your screen, maybe about to go have a snack. Imagine yourself as the precious little pixels you are, your tiny body poised to take in cookies, say, made from Nebraskan wheat, the carbon dioxide you exhale wafting out to the ozone hole, beyond which you can see beautiful ringed Saturn and the edges of the Milky Way. And beyond that, maybe 100 billion galaxies, where stars vastly bigger than our sun are being born right this minute. And beyond that – well, just the last decade, astrophysicists have figured out that all planetary and star stuff, all that so-called normal matter, is less than five percent of the universe, the rest being composed of dark matter and dark energy, about which we know almost nothing.
May you be humbled and grateful for your place in the universe and at table. It’s just right.