Saturday, May 1, 2021

A Conversation About Humility

On Friday, I wrote about developing a more humble perspective on the world, and I think that's important. But it's also important, when we introduce the idea of humility, to talk a little bit about what humility really is. 

Primarily because we are really bad at it, even when we are trying really hard. 

We all know about false humility - and we recognize it almost immediately as false. This is the idea that when someone compliments you, you're supposed to pretend you're not awesome and instead, talk about how terrible you or tell them how mistaken they must be about you. We've been told this is the polite thing to do, that it's the best way to handle compliments about yourself and praise from others. (It's not. Maybe we should talk about that tomorrow.) But we all also recognize this isn't real humility. 

We've coined a phrase in our culture for another type of false humility - the "humble brag." This is where you say something about yourself that could be a lowly, little kind of thing except that you are actually trying to make it a praiseworthy thing. The so-called humble brag seeks recognition and praise, which makes it, too, not at all humble. 

And then, we have come up with this cute little phrase that says that humility "is not thinking less of yourself; it's thinking of yourself less." But guess what - that's not humility, either. Humility is never self-dismissive. It can't be. So the minute that you try to think you're not a factor in this equation, that you don't exist in this circumstance, that nothing about you matters here...that's not humility. Humility cannot exist without a self to humble. As cute as this phrase is, it doesn't get us to humility. 

The common cultural understanding of humility, which seems to be as true inside of the church as outside of the church, would read a post like the one I made on Friday and determine that our best course of action through the world would be to pretend we knows nothing. To pretend we've never been a human being before and have no experience in or opinion on whatever we're facing right now. Or perhaps it would propose that we start every breath with the recognition that we are most definitely wrong about whatever we're thinking. 

That's not humility. Humility is not a blankness. It's not an emptiness.

Humility is not self-dismissing. It is not self-defeating. It is not self-deprecating. 

Humility is self-recognizing. Self-honoring. Self-owning.

See, humility starts with our recognition that we are finite beings. It doesn't pretend that we don't know anything, but recognizes that we don't know everything. It owns what we have access to in our limited experience and understanding, and at the same time, it confesses that our experience and understanding are limited - that there are things that we aren't thinking about because we haven't lived a life that has forced us to think about...and that there are things we couldn't think about if we had a thousand imaginations because they are that far outside of our lived realm. 

And yet, these things that we don't know are just as real as the things that we do know. That's what humility acknowledges. That's what humility grasps.

So when humility comes up against a recognition like those I have been having lately, when it brushes up against things outside of its own perspective, it doesn't become self-defeating and claim it is impossible to know anything; it doesn't become self-dismissive and claim it doesn't know what it very surely does know; it doesn't become self-deprecating and claim some sort of mock lowliness. Humility isn't troubled by the fact that it doesn't know everything; it doesn't expect to know everything. 

It expects that there is always something outside of the box of lived experience that it doesn't know yet, without giving up any of the millions of things it very much knows. Humility believes it has a contribution to make...and to receive. 

They say that humility is accepting your smallness or that humbling yourself is making yourself smaller. But we make ourselves smaller not by turning on ourselves, but by realizing our world is much bigger that we know of it. Just as a goldfish is no smaller in the ocean than it is in the bowl; it's just that in the open waters, it feels its smallness differently. When we let our world be bigger, we fell our smallness differently, without actually being any smaller at all. That's humility. 

It starts with our fullness and embraces every bit of us, but it comes to our smallness. 

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