Monday, August 19, 2002

It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am

When I was first getting going with this blog, I did a brief tour of some of the classical virtues and vices. I had intended it to be comprehensive, and it may still be yet, but I got hung up on humility, and haven’t been able to get back to it coherently. Humility hung me up because it is the hardest virtue.

That surely sounds wrong, doesn’t it? If you took a poll, my guess would be that the majority of responders would choose “chastity” as the most difficult, and humility the easiest. This, however, stems more from misunderstandings of the two than from any real truth about their natures.

One thing that has been said very often by many better writers—but that retains truth nonetheless—is that it possible to “be” something, or to “become” something, by doing it first. Thus, if one sets one’s mind towards doing charity, truly doing it, one will discover that one’s mind and mood become charitable. As soon as one stops worrying about being, and becomes engrossed in doing, the being follows almost automatically.

And so, chastity can be done by an act of will. I do not dispute that the act of will is greater or lesser for some, of course, but an act of will it remains.

Humility isn’t quite so neat. For it contains a paradox within it that makes it much trickier to navigate while you attempt to learn it.

At least a few readers said to themselves, their computers or the blind people to whom they read Kairos out of kindness, “Aha! I’ve got him! All I have to do to ‘do’ humility is to put others first. And that is surely easier than making sure those lustful teens leave room for the Holy Spirit!” Well, yes, I suppose so. But hang on a moment, first.

Most people, when they “put others first” do it either out of latent self-interest or self-loathing. Personally, I vacillate between the two at a speed measurable only by well-equipped laboratories engaged in experiments that would baffle Schrodinger. (Sorry about the lack of an umlaut.)

The first part is the old question about whether altruism exists at all. The second is a kind of reverse narcissistic personality disorder, that places the self above others by lowering it. If I am the lowest creature that ever was, in a perverse way I am the best. (I don’t, by the way, suggest that I very often get to the extreme endpoints of these two states, merely that my actions and attitudes inscribe a sine wave across the scale.)

The paradox of humility is in the ironic heading above: it in fact is hard to be humble when you are as great as I am. But humility, true humility, can only flow from that realization.

Now, there are about two kajillion (2 x 10^bazillion) errors and heresies that can flow from what I just said, so hang on before you go divorce your spouse and start a temple to yourself in Aspen.

Humility starts in a realization that you are great. You are, after all, a creature of God. He may not have made you out of clay, except at several removes, but He did make you, and He endowed you with gifts and freedoms to make it possible for you to see and appreciate Him, and this is undeniably great. So no more running around, muttering under your breath at yourself for being such a jerk all the time, or for being the worst person to ever live, or whatever other bile you spew at yourself with great regularity. Stop it. You are God’s creation, and continually or continuously putting yourself down borders on blasphemy.


If I stopped there, I would have written nothing that you couldn’t find in a book of daily affirmations in the “self-help” section of the local Borders. I’d probably also have a bestseller, an infomercial and a jet. [Ed. note: how come the spell checker knows “infomercial” but not “kajillion”? Doesn’t seem right somehow.]

Here’s the paradox: everyone else is God’s creature, too. You are no better than everyone else, but you are no worse, either. So, yielding to the needs of others because they are better than you is as wrong as putting yourself first because you are better than others. Neither one is true humility.

Humility is recognizing that “all men are created equal.” Not in the foolish, “pretend we’re all the same and define differences out of existence” modern western sense of that. But in the original sense, equality before God, or equality under law. Once you recognize that, you put the needs of others first because it is right, and because putting your own first no longer makes much difference. [For those who wish to dispute the “2+2=4” statement that “putting others first is right,” I refer you to Aquinas and Aristotle. I’m not proving objective truth here, but discussing how to apply it.] What can it matter, then, if you are first among equals or last?

Fine and good, then, you say. What’s so tricky about that?

Well, try it. Try to acknowledge in your heart that the smelly man in the next pew singing off-key is as loved by God as you. Not so easy, but possible, after some wrestling. No points, however, if you had to think of some known virtue he possesses to offset his smelly bad singing. We’re not weighing good against bad here, we’re talking about starting points.

Now try this: accept that you are the best player on the team. Seriously. If you are the one player your team can’t do without, you are the best. And it is humble to accept it. Note, I’m not giving you permission to brag about it, or to rub others’ faces in it. But it is prideful to pretend you are not, all the while cherishing a secret knowledge that you carefully hide from others. It is humble to say, “I am,” and to move on.

And that is really the secret of humility: accepting reality as you find it, and acknowledging your own place in it. You are better at some things, worse at others, and endowed with gifts you must use as best you can. At the same time, you are in just the same state as every other person, and you, knowing your own heart better than others, should recognize your weaknesses very well, and be glad for others who manage not to fail quite so often as you.

Humility lies in taking joy, real, Christian joy, in everyone, including yourself. Loathe those things you do and others do that are not in themselves good. But do not loathe yourself anymore than you loathe others for them. Loving the sinner and hating the sin is as true for your own sins as for anyone else’s.


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