This is a great C.S. Lewis quote to think about this time of year. Humility is an intriguing topic – an elusive virtue that we all wish we had and very few of us actually have. I could list a gazillion moments when I WISH I had humility; yet it’s very hard to come by.
I personally find humility to be one of the hardest virtues to wrap my head around. Maybe it’s because I’m a fairly action-minded person (and I don’t think I’m the only one). When I think of growing in a certain value, I immediately think of specific actions and look for measurable progress.
Patience is a good example. You can be more patient by listening before speaking, counting to 10 or biting your tongue, etc. And you can see your progress, at least once in a while – maybe you feel more compassionate or don’t speak to your kids so harshly.
Even virtues like love, which have a broader scope and are harder to measure, but you can still find concrete actions that help you grow in love.
But humility eludes all attempts to pin it down. In fact, as soon as you actually think you have reason to believe you’re growing more humble, you get afraid that you’ve got it all wrong. After all, how can you REALLY think you’re humble without your pride getting in the way?
So humility is one of the virtues I don’t think about too often. But as Lent came around, I started thinking about it more. Humility seems somehow to belong in a special way to Lent. Jesus’ Passion is the greatest example of humility there is.
Jesus’ humility, though, isn’t the submissive, self-effacing attitude often associated with humility. If we think about Jesus, step-by-step through his passion, we can paint a different, much more positive picture of humility:
– Jesus never put himself down. In fact, he remained fully confident in who he was and challenged others to accept the truth.
– Jesus’ humility was grounded in accepting the Father’s will for him. Humility isn’t only associated with miserable experiences; Jesus did this throughout his life, in the easy and the difficult moments.
– Jesus was constantly thinking of others. Namely: us. Me. By name. Honestly, I think this is the “secret” to his suffering, and any suffering for that matter. Thinking of yourself makes suffering more and more miserable; thinking of someone outside of you gives it meaning and makes it worthwhile.
– Jesus allowed others to see him in his weakness. He could have had it otherwise. He could have endured great pain to save us but done it in private, preventing others from seeing God “made low”. But he chose to allow others to see him in his suffering, possibly as a way to show us that there’s nothing shameful in suffering.
– Jesus allowed others to help him. Obviously, as God, Jesus didn’t need help. He, and only he, could carry the load he shouldered. As a man, he could receive comfort and aid from the help of others. But I think the main reason he chose to be helped was 1) to show us not to be afraid of being helped when we need it and 2) for the greater good of the ones helping him. Think of Simon the Cyrene and Veronica, as two examples of people who helped Jesus, and how their lives must have been changed by that experience. We might see asking for help as being a burden, but there’s always a flip side to the story as well.
I still think humility (in terms of the “how”) is a little vague, and I’m far from fully understanding it, but here are a few things I think can help.
– Don’t thinking of humility in terms of “progress”. When you’re truly making “progress” in humility, you’ll probably be the last to realize it. Try to be humble when you see the need or are inspired to work on it as a virtue, but don’t try to measure it.
– Work on humility more for the sake of others than for your own sake. In other words, don’t look at it as a feather to add to your cap of virtues, but as a way of being that encompasses many characteristics and makes you much more accessible to others. It makes you more gentle, more compassionate, more willing to listen, more willing to accept others, because you care about THEM more than about how you are received.
– Be willing to accept your mistakes. That’s something that does take humility (and most of the time, just basic honesty!).
– Don’t beat yourself up. Recognizing our individual strengths, and above all our value as individuals in the image and likeness of God is also part of humility, to the extent that we realize that all we have is a gift from God given to us to bring us closer to him and to share with those around us.
– Work on all the other virtues, and you’ll end up working on humility by default. Faith, hope, charity, patience, justice, perseverance… You name it. All these virtues bring us to focus more on God and others, and bring us to view ourselves the way God sees us, full of flaws (our own) and beauty (God-given). Pretty much the goal of humility, right?
Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart more like yours!