What Humility Might Be

Well, now that I’ve banged on what humility isn’t, perhaps I can ponder what humility is.

Lime tree leavesHumility is, in some fashion, the opposite of pride and vainglory, but it’s not so simple as that.  It must incorporate movements away from those without looping all the way around and finding ourselves back where we started.  So we need to move away from autonomy and complete self-reliance as well as away from self-agrandizement and boasting.  Perhaps something that ought to be considered is what drives us towards those things in the first place.  Self-agrandizement and boasting are perhaps easier.

There are two things I can come up with off the top of my head that would lead towards these.  First, there are those that are essentially taught that tooting your own horn is the way life works.  It’s a learned habit that some people just have been shown to be normative, and there probably are places where that’s appropriate (job interviews come to mind).  Such learned practices are probably less concerning.  Second, those that find themselves boasting or trying to make themselves grand are those who have some need to do so.  There is something in them that does not feel okay unless they are trying to make themselves more than they are and focusing on themselves.  One that is humble, then, must either not experience such feelings or respond in such a way so as not to give in to them.  Thus, one who is humble must either not experience a need to glorify or focus on oneself.

The drive towards autonomy and utter self-reliance stems from fear of others manifesting itself in some way.  That fear may come out either in direct fear or via indirect aggression.  Either one avoids others because they are immediately afraid of being hurt or because they are angry at others and feel that they must take it upon themselves to do what is necessary lest it be done poorly or in a way that ultimately hurts them.  Either way, the issue beneath is one of fear.  Humility, then, must either not experience that fear or respond with courage to act from a different place.

The problem here is that I’m still defining humility in terms of what it is not.  But maybe I’m getting closer?

Because of the autonomy issue, humility must involve an acknowledgment and acceptance of one’s dependence and interdependence.  That relies on some courage so as to fight against the fear and self-centered tendencies that are unfortunately part of all of our fallen hearts.  Because of the vainglory issue, humility must involve a contentedness with one’s position.  This doesn’t defy the drive to move in one direction or another but rather an acceptance of the possibility of that drive not being fulfilled.  It’s the old holding-things-loosely idea.  It’s okay to want so long as you’re okay if you never get.

But I think humility must also involve a certain level of self-forgetfulness.  We cannot forget ourselves entirely because if we do, then we have no self-awareness of our need, which is critical for our capacity to interact with God and others in a loving and accurate fashion.  However, we can’t be controlled by that need.  Somehow, we have to be able to be okay without having that need satisfied.  Or, perhaps better, we have to somehow live in a space where we know that the need will be and already is satisfied by God and the body of Christ.  Perhaps self-forgetfulness is the wrong term.  Perhaps contentedness or a movement towards contentedness is a good word here as well.

Needful contentedness seems to encompass a good deal of what humility entails, so long as we are willing to embrace and accept it.  We have to be aware of and not fight against our need for God and others while being content with the truth that those needs are already and will ultimately be fulfilled.  Once there is that contentment, then there is no longer a drive towards self-agrandizement because the very need that drives it is accepted as being met. Likewise, the fear that leads to autonomy is eased because of the acknowledgment that one’s true needs are satisfied.

So there’s a tension to humility – the awareness and embracing of one’s need coupled with the acknowledgment that those needs are and will be met.  That seems a very different perspective on humility than I think most would offer.  But am I off here?


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