In place

And this week’s subject is humility.

I had some fun with this one, if you define “fun” as working through labyrinthine connotations of a word most people recognize but few have given a lot of thought to. As with “faith” a couple weeks back, I took some time to look up definitions for the word “humility.” This one, from an ostensibly Christian website, had me looking crosseyed: “Humility or humbleness is a quality of being courteously respectful of others.” ( Seriously? Wikipedia was marginally more helpful:
“Humility (adjectival form: humble) is the quality of being modest, reverential, even politely submissive, and never being arrogant, contemptuous, rude or even self-abasing.”

The interesting thing about the Wikipedia article is that it goes on to discuss how different religions view humility, and how some philosophies think it’s a terrible idea. And if you read these two definitions in the right (or wrong) light, you get the idea that this great, ancient virtue is telling us to be doormats, to treat ourselves as lesser creatures who should never stand up to anyone. And then there’s the problem with false humility. You’ve got entire cultures out there, entire traditions that forbid anyone from doing anything that might draw attention to themselves, whether good or bad. We’ve even got traditions that teach people that they are worth nothing, that they have no value outside of what they do.

And this became in issue for me a few years back when I became a vocal music major.

I’m not really the kind of person who attracts attention. In public, anyway. Being introverted and socially awkward will do that to you. But my voice teacher started giving me solos in concerts. I joined a small performance group that toured the area. And people started telling me, “I really like your voice.” Nearly every time I sang, people would tell me how much they liked it or how beautiful it was. Even my fellow singers would tell me. The first few times this happened, I had no idea what to say. I’d stutter out “thank you” and go red. I wondered sometimes if they were just being nice, or if it was just ’cause it was live music (people are always nicer about live music), or any other factors were involved, but as the compliments kept coming I had to come to terms with the idea that I have a good voice. And over the years it has become a fact that while I may not be famous, I don’t have a record deal, and I’m not charging for tickets, I have fans.

How do you can you be humble when you have fans?

‘Cause there’s not anything you can really do about fans, once they decide they like you. Contrary to what you may hear in the media, you don’t have to actively cultivate them. You just have to be good at something. Scripture, which talks so much about humility, also instructs us not to hide our talents, and to develop our skills. If we do that, there’s a chance we’re gonna have fans. Because people (rightly) admire someone who uses their talents well.

The Bible also calls into question some of the other things those definitions further up had tacked onto humility. I really don’t think “courteously respectful” accurately describes the way Jesus treated every single person he met. He was kind, he was loving, he was merciful, and he did treat people with respect on the whole, but he wasn’t afraid to be sarcastic, assertive, and abrasive when he felt it was necessary. He insulted the proud. He attracted a lot of attention. He acted with authority – which, by the way, was part of what flabbergasted the teachers in the Temple when Jesus visited at the age of twelve. Knowing all the answers is one thing, giving them as if they are the Final Word on the Subject is something else entirely. And we’re told that Jesus embodied humility.

So what is humility?

Well, we can always ask, “what’s pride?” if being humble is the opposite of being prideful. And we might end up in the same blind alleys with definitions of “having an elevated opinion of oneself.” If anybody had an elevated opinion of himself, it’d be Jesus, who insisted pretty clearly that he was the Son of God. And the prophesied Messiah. And sinless. I believe this is true, and even so it’s pretty darn “elevated”.

But here we have a clue: Paul’s letter to the Philippians (chapter 2, verse 6) says that Jesus did not consider equality with God as something to be “grasped”.

I know some people who are in (relatively) high positions who are very humble. Or, at least they seem so to me. They’re the ones who seem to have forgotten to put their egos on in the morning. They’ve got authority, they’ve got talent, they’ve got skill, they’re very good at what they do, and they behave as if the preceding is an important responsibility. But if it is important, it’s only because it’s where they are – any place they are is important because they should be giving it their best effort. They care about skill. They care about hard work. They care about authority. The thing they don’t care about is glory.

One of these people I have in mind spends a fair amount of time in front of an audience. He wants very much for the audience to enjoy the show. Not because he wants their praise, but because it is his responsibility to give them a quality performance. The purest part of his motivation (for no one’s motivation is entirely pure) is that his skill – his talent – is to make beautiful music, and it would be wrong not to. He doesn’t have a low opinion of himself as far as I can tell. He knows he’s talented. He gets an enormous amount of delight out of using his talent. But he is more concerned with delight than he is with fame.

And there, I think, is the difference. Pride does things for attention, and for glory. Pride does things out of concern for other people’s opinion. Pride wants to be adored and admired. Humility simply doesn’t care.

Humility speaks up, because it’s right, not caring if it offends. Humility uses a talent because that talent exists. Humility makes a choice because it is the right one, regardless of whether it leads to fame or infamy. If Humility is respectful, it’s because people deserve respect. If Humility is modest, it is because modesty is seemly. If Humility is self-effacing, it’s because it is not self-aggrandizing. If Humility is quiet, it’s because, at that moment, being quiet is better than being loud. Humility knows both its weaknesses and its strengths, because forgetting either will get us into trouble.

Pride says, “This is the place I ought to be”, and it can be either too high or too low. Humility says, “This is where I am, where do I go from here?”

Over time we develop this image of ourselves. We have this idea of where we belong. Sometimes it’s too high, sometimes it’s too low, and sometimes (and here I am again awed by the sheer ingenuity of human reason) it’s both. When we find ourselves faced with a choice that would knock us out of that spot, the part that recoils is pride. For we think we don’t belong there. It’s not where we think we should stand. To put off that pride, to cease to care, to take the choice or bear the burden (or give up the burden) because it’s right, is to act in humility.

If we genuinely believe that our worth is intrinsic, not based in what we do or what we have (internally or externally), then… why are we proud at all?