More than anything, to be humble is to be authentic.
I’ve always had one not-so-very secret personality flaw — I’m arrogant.
Maybe it’s because I’m one of three brothers, each of us more competitively arrogant than the next. Our poor mother doesn’t know how to handle us. One brother will claim he’s getting in shape, and I’ll respond Big deal, I rode my bike 80 miles yesterday, and our youngest brother will say he rode his bike 100 miles yesterday up a mountain in California and was the fastest one up and no one will ever be faster than him. Whatever the task, my brothers and I will guarantee we can do it best.
If you’re reading closely right now, you may have noticed that, ironically, I’m kind of boasting about how arrogant I am. You might think I’m humbling myself by revealing my flaw, but the truth is that I’m willing to share embarrassing facts about myself so readily because I’m unreasonably self-confident.
But there’s one problem: my pride doesn’t match my abilities. With each passing day, it’s becoming abundantly clear that I need to accept reality. This means getting serious about humility.
What is humility, anyway?
Humility is the virtue of accurate insight, the ability to avoid thinking we are that which we are not. There’s this odd idea floating around – we all seem to share it to some degree or another — that we’re all fine just the way we are. People claim that they’re kind and good, basically salt-of-the-earth, and if there are problems in the world it must be other people causing the ruckus.
It reminds me of the time that G.K. Chesterton, in response to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?,” fessed up that, if there’s a problem, it’s because of him. If, in my pride, I convince myself I haven’t contributed to the issues that swirl and plague the world, my perspective is probably skewed to the point of being totally inaccurate.
At the very least, it reveals a side-effect of pride. It shrinks our world down to almost nothing by whispering in our all-too-willing ears If you were in charge, everything would be much better. Everything is about me, everything is happening to me, everyone else is an actor in my play.
It brings to mind Satan proudly proclaiming in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Groucho Marx, as profound as Milton in his own way, jokes, “I wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have a person like me as a member.” It’s the same with pride. I actually wouldn’t be very interested in a world in which I was the best thing going.
Humility, paradoxically, has the opposite effect.
Humility enlarges our world. If it is true self-knowledge, then it follows that it doesn’t make us less than we are. To be humble, you don’t have to curate a form of ah-shucks low self-esteem, fall into self-pity, or voice negativity about yourself. More than anything, humility is authentic. The more humble you are, the more comfortable you’ll be with exactly who you are, knowing the good and willing to work on the bad.
Blessed Fulton Sheen warns, “If we are filled with our own importance, then we can never be filled with anything outside ourselves.” Humility is the condition for breaking out of our limited, interior world and out into the infinite life that God has in store for us. Kevin Vost, in his book Humble Strength, points out that humility comes from the Latin word humus, which literally means “earth.” Humility keeps us grounded and keeps our feet firmly planted, becoming a source of stability and strength.
I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit poet I’m fond of reading, who would sit and examine a drop of water on a leaf for hours and sketch the raindrop in his notebook. By becoming very humble and willing to learn from the smallest, most insignificant aspects of nature, the beauty of these simple things helped him know God better. People laughed and thought him very strange, but Hopkins didn’t mind. If he seemed odd, well, his own reputation wasn’t so important. He desired to raise himself up, not pridefully against God, but humbly towards God.
In order to get a foot onto that lowest rung on the ladder to heaven, to uncover the reason why the lilies of the field are beautiful beyond compare, to turn our souls fully to God, we must be very humble and very honest.
So what’s the honest truth? We are flawed. We are messy. We harbor all manner of mistaken ideas about ourselves and our abilities. We do and say arrogant, presumptive things that embarrass us when we look back on them. It’s also true that, in spite of this, God loves us dearly, and he will raise us to a heavenly throne if we’re humble enough to accept his help.
Humility isn’t mediocrity. It’s heroic transformation. It’s having your feet firmly planted on the earth and reaching for the stars.