Musings Spiritual Practice

The Paradox of Humility

“You bring a sense of humility.”

My friend Nan said this to me yesterday while we were having coffee to discuss the practical arrangements of my staying in her home while attending seminary. We were talking about what I want to do in ministry, and she was telling me what she saw as my gifts – my theatricality, my practicality, my gentleness, my insight, and my humility.

I agreed that on the first few, I could see it too. I have a deep background in theatre, which I know helps me when it comes to preaching and the worship arts. I have been both onstage and backstage, so I know the practical side of things. And being a GenXer, I have a bit of that pragmatic streak common in my generation. Gentleness, well, I’m working on that. I think I still have sharpness around the edges that are offputting to me and others. Insight? Well, I suppose it smore that I have a little more confidence that if I’m thinking about something, others may be too, and may wish to hear what I have to say on the topic.

But humility? How do you react to that? “Why yes, I do bring humility” sounds so… well, NOT humble. “Nah, I have no humility” is too self-depricating or snarky. I’m reminded of that funny Mac Davis tune (remember him?), “Oh Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble”:

(Ah, Muppets. But I digress.)

So what IS humility? And how do you accept it as a quality you own?

Or… is it more like Grace… something that is a gift from the Divine, something you really only notice once it’s passed?

Or… is it something that you can’t ever own, or name for yourself, but only hope to achieve it in the abstract?

A dictionary definition calls humilitythe state of being modest, respectful, egoless. Interestingly, its Latin root, humilitas, means “grounded”…. something I never thought of until I looked it up just now. So maybe (wow, talk about abruptly altering the course of a blog post!), when we embrace being grounded – rather than being too much in our heads, too much in our personalities, too much in our ego selves – we are humble.

Now this is something I can wrap my head around. I know I am my best self when I get out of my own way. This doesn’t mean I don’t exist; I’m not a fan of the kind of egolessness that makes us disappear. I believe we are here, as ego-filled, individual, thinking humans for a purpose, and that purpose can’t be to disappear again  into a singularity. Rather, when I get out of my own way, I am less likely to take things too personally, less likely to see things only from my point of view, less likely to measure myself against others. When I get out of my own way, I am more likely to have clear thoughts, enjoy the situation, and hear the joys, pains, sorrows, anger, and contentment of others. I am more likely to notice those moments of grace. I am more likely to be awed by all of Creation. And I am more likely to share that awe with others.

So…the paradox. Maybe it’s not such a paradox after all. Maybe accepting a compliment such as the one I got from Nan yesterday is about knowing a different meaning for humility and responding, “yes, thank you, I feel it is important to get out of my own way and let things happen.” How others interpret that may not matter – but it may be easier to handle being called humble and being graceful enough to accept it.

I will end with this quote from William Temple, Archbishop of Cantebury during the Second World War: “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.”

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