Humility may be one of the toughest virtues to comprehend in our present society. In spite of incomparable prosperity and power in the 21st century, we still cling to experiences of personal and collective humiliation—perhaps as a way to compensate for excessive pride. I believe we need to recover the essential elements of humility if we are to keep material progress from interfering with moral and spiritual growth.
When I was very young, I liked to imagine that I was a prince. No one could or would want to harm me in my domain. But one day as I was inspecting my boundaries, I encountered three older boys who were bored and looking for an easy target for their superior strength and numbers. They pushed me into a telephone booth and closed the door. They stood back and laughed at my predicament, because in my terror it never occurred to me to push on the inside of the door to escape. I became a prisoner of my humiliation. This memory has remained with me for a very long time.
For many, the mention of humility evokes shame, guilt, and the depression related to low self-esteem. In this age of social Darwinism, in which the strong are regarded as the ones who can cope with the pressures and challenges of living in a fiercely competitive and fast-moving world, meekness (or humility) is taken to be a sign of weakness. The meek may appeal to our sympathies, but they remain helplessly dependent on the benevolence of the more powerful.
Dependency is a stigma in itself, and the dependent are encouraged to pull themselves together, to change their outlook and try to become more like their benefactors. The prophets of Darwinism ignore the debilitating effects of fear, poverty, and an endless cycle of violence throughout the world. Is it any wonder that so many spiritual traditions have a profound reverence for the humble and the lowly as people especially favored by God? Psalm 10 offers the prayer, "O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from the Earth may strike terror no more."
Jesus must have been aware of the short-sightedness of human behavior when he said, "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted " (Matt. 23: 12). Some of us may be put on the defensive by these words. Others may wonder if our understanding of humility in terms of weakness could be misguided. Feelings like guilt, shame, and depression have been shown to be more than symptoms of weakness. In fact, these negative emotions may actually be openings, or invitations, to more lasting and superior strength.
In their book Shadows of the Heart, James and Evelyn Whitehead describe shame, guilt, and depression as naturally healthy emotions that go awry and result in a negative state of humiliation when their warning signals are not acknowledged.
Shame is found at the very root of human dignity and affirms the necessary boundaries that support a sense of self-hood. Nowhere is this so evident as in the case of addiction. People become addicted to many different mood-altering substances and behaviors, often because they feel helpless to redeem themselves from intolerable situations. Alcoholics Anonymous has found that these attitudes can be faced most effectively through a form of humility that avoids extreme comparisons. Similarly, Dag Hammarskjold wrote,
"To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger or smaller, than anything else in the universe. It is—is nothing, yet at the same time one with everything."
To be human is to accept our humanness, the fact that we are a mixed bag of good and bad tendencies. The words human and humility are related to humus, decaying plant and vegetable matter that fertilizes the Earth, the very ground of our being and survival. Earth is our home, and this home, according to the Whiteheads, "is the place where we are most ourselves, where we are accepted . . . because of our imperfection." Home is where we are accepted for, and not simply in spite of, our "defects." They continue, "Humility is a realistic and flexible sense of self which bends before adversity and even failure, but does not shatter. A healthy sense of shame allows us to be humbled, without being humiliated."
Feelings of guilt alert us to discrepancies between our ideals and behavior that falls short of those ideals. Guilt defends commitments and value changes that give meaning to life, and supports our sense of personal integrity. This is definitely a step beyond both shame and morbid introspection. It also leads to a suspension in judging others according to our own fragile standards. A maxim of Alcoholics Anonymous asserts, "Seeing first one’s own defects and shortcomings is humility; the fruit of that vision is tolerance."
The advocates of restorative justice have realized that guilt may be a force for healing relationships if it focuses on the offending behavior and motivates change. "Inauthentic guilt," on the other hand, is the assumption underlying the prevailing system of retributive justice. It distracts us from concrete details of what people have done by focusing on how bad they are. When we stigmatize an offender as being beyond hope of redemption, we have failed to comprehend the harmful effects of public humiliation.
There is a Sufi tale that challenges us to reexamine our presumptions about guilt and innocence. A king who was visiting the city jail asked the prisoners about their crimes. Most of them said they were innocent and unjustly accused. However, when one confessed that he was guilty as charged, the king commanded, "Throw this one out before he corrupts the innocent."
The story speaks to prisoners in our own jails—the humiliated ones who have found themselves isolated from the broader community. Protestations of innocence are quite common among them, for their only hope is to be believed and released. Those who most emphatically deny responsibility for their condition, however, are often the most dangerous offenders—while those who have come to terms with their guilt, and acknowledge their shame, may be ready for healing.
Psalm 37, which repeatedly exhorts us "not to fret," addresses one of the key problems of our time—when impatience for justice opens the gate to depression. Depression, in the non-clinical sense, may also be an invitation to humility. It alerts us that something has become intolerable and calls for reexamination of life and facing up to the challenge or loss we have been avoiding. Depression is often so deeply rooted in our lives that we do not recognize it for what it is. In the early stages it may appear as an indefinite feeling of vulnerability and loneliness. I recall standing in a crowd of chattering people after a Christmas worship service, nursing the thought that everyone but myself had something to be joyful about that day. Then a friend standing nearby gave me a nudge, saying, "Someone is trying to get your attention." Looking down, I saw a young child pulling on my trouser leg. When she knew she had my attention, she said "Merry Christmas," and went on her way. It was a small incident, yet it lingers in my mind years later. Though I may be imagining it now, I think I recall a hint of rebuke in her voice. She has come to represent a voice of conscience, reminding me that even though I may feel isolated at times, I am never really alone.
Children represent humility as a spiritual reality because they remind us that those possessed by this quality are unaware of it. Humility is instinctive. It becomes manifest in spontaneous gestures of warmth, generosity, and self-sacrifice. When the disciples asked Jesus who among them was greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus pointed to a child and said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" (Matt.18:1-5).
In one of the essays included in A Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly encouraged his listeners to explore the depths of humility with their lives rather than their intellects. "Humility rests," he wrote, "upon a holy blindness, like the blindness of him who looks steadily into the sun, for wherever he turns his eyes on Earth, there he sees only the sun." He concludes, "The God-blinded soul sees naught of self, naught of personal degradation or of personal eminence, but only the Holy Will working impersonally through him, through others, as one objective Life and Power."
What happened to me after I was locked in the telephone booth? It took a long time to recover the full memory of this event—but now I dimly recall seeing my mother coming down the street to rescue me, as though in a vision of grace. I didn’t try to conceal my shame as the tears flowed and I cried out for help. The authentic guilt of being the cause of my mother’s distress was soon dispelled when I saw the expression of relief on her face. The joy of being rescued and restored to my natural dignity was more powerful than any subsequent experience in my life.