Humility: what it is, and what it definitely isn’t

“I believe the first test of a truly great man is in his humility.” Says John Ruskin.

“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds.”  Adds Saint Augustine.

So what exactly is this priceless virtue called humility? And why do deeply virtuous souls seek it out and protect it, while less advanced souls view it, at best, as a bitter necessity – and at worst, as a foolish relic of our less enlightened past?

I believe the answer to the second question is due in large measure to humility’s association with certain very well-meaning but misguided practices of Christianity. While being one of the greatest sources of truth and inspiration regarding this beautiful virtue, sadly Christianity has also been the source of many a harmful myth about the nature of it. Many faithful Christians have made the mistake of attempting to reverse-engineer humility by imitating the outward practices of the saints. The saint, seeing the enormous disparity between the divine and the purely corporeal aspect of their humanity, will often be moved to utter cries of self-loathing. Despite this clear recognition of the disparity between the divine and the corporeal, the saint understands that he is loved by the divine.

Well-meaning Christians, knowing the value of imitating the saints, will often see it as an act of virtue to take pot shots at themselves and outwardly verbalise their shortcomings. Although usually well intentioned, these efforts are faulty because they lack the saint’s glorious vision of the divine and the knowledge of its love for them. Instead of being animated by these powerful insights, they are simply reciting hollow words of negativity, which will be ineffectual at best. At worst they can cause shame and self-loathing – and lacking the saint’s clear understanding of the divine love, there can be no great flowering of reciprocal love. This is the great fruit of true humility – an increase in love for the divine and for other souls; but such faulty attempts at humility can produce nothing but a festering self-hatred.

Furthermore, the ego – being the sneaky creature it is – often hides behind our best intentions, and sometimes these seemingly pious words of self-deprecation are simply the ego’s way of showing others how special it is. “Look at me – I’m humble. I must be spiritually advanced, or at least making a darn good effort. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m one of those nasty proud people – I’m keeping my ego in check, you see?” Thus what appears to be humility is sometimes actually its polar opposite – pride.

The true definition of humility is extremely simple. It is not specifically about saying or doing anything – it is an understanding. Whatever words or actions tend to accompany humility will flow naturally from this understanding, but the understanding cannot be acquired by mechanically repeating the words or actions. The understanding is, quite simply: you are not more important than anyone else.

For many spiritual people, this is a bitter pill to swallow. Often the first awakenings of spirituality – even our feeblest, most faulty first steps – tend to be accompanied by a corresponding temptation of the ego to view ourselves as more advanced or more important than the masses  due to our comparatively advanced knowledge. Perhaps we envision ourselves somehow enlightening others by spreading our insights or healing the masses through our radiant positive energy. Such thoughts are, of course, the work of our old friend the ego – in this case, disguising itself as a disinterested healer of others. But perhaps our path in life will involve no such renown, and perhaps not even a visible impact on the world around us. Perhaps we are here to labour in obscurity, with no purpose other than to develop ourselves internally. After all, we are no more important than anyone else.

Paradoxically, the souls whose virtue has shaken the world to its foundations are the souls who deeply recognised this fact. Christ spent most of his life as a carpenter. Buddha renounced his position in the Indian royal family for a life of secluded contemplation. Laozi was basically a filing clerk, so tradition has it. None appeared to seek glory and influence, and yet all established spiritual legacies that have long outlived them.

The great spiritual masters therefore rightly prescribe humility as an essential remedy against this potentially fatal trap of the ego. Indeed, there is a certain point beyond which no further spiritual understanding can take place until the ego is subdued. One example of this is during the first stages of kundalini awakening. It is not uncommon for the accompanying insights and powers of kundalini awakening to evoke a powerful ego response, with feelings of superiority and an arrogant sense of all-knowingness – such that the kundalini actually stops in its path, and the whole process is halted until the ego is tamed.

Christianity has long taught that pride is the father of all sins. Indeed, “Pride goeth before destruction”, says Proverbs 16:18. The flip side of this is that once humility is acquired, all the other virtues become much easier to attain. When we truly appreciate that we are no more important than others, if we have any degree of love for ourselves then we cannot help but love them also – and “love covereth a multitude of sins”, says St. Peter in 1 Peter 4:8.

Rick Warren almost got it right in his famous quote: “humility is not thinking less of ourselves – it’s thinking of ourselves less.” But this is perhaps a better definition of charity and generosity than of humility. Truly, humility is not thinking less of ourselves – but it is thinking no more of ourselves than of others.

A real life example of turning the other cheek

It shouldn’t be any surprise to the spiritually inclined to learn that one of Christ’s most powerful teachings is also one of his most maligned. The great admonition to “turn the other cheek” doesn’t sit well with the self-centered, egotistical society we live in. There is also a tendency for people to interpret this admonition literally, almost as though it were boxing advice, and miss the underlying point. If I were to summarise the underlying message, it would be something like this: “When you see others acting badly, don’t let it concern you, and never be tempted to react. Rather, with all humility, let it inspire you to act better yourself.” Or if we make it a tad more practical still: “When someone acts inappropriately towards you, don’t argue with them or tell them how inappropriate they have been. Rather, humbly show them by your superior conduct.”

Acts of great virtue are inspiring to all people, regardless of religious conviction. The following example from a truly virtuous man, Fr. Willie Doyle, SJ, is a perfect demonstration of the true meaning of Christ’s words. The story comes from the lovely, inspiring and sadly long out of print book Merry in God by an anonymous author:

“I recall one memorable scene. It is a common occurrence in Clongowes for one cricket club to challenge another. The consequences for the loser are serious, since the beaten side is liable to confiscation of its bats, pads, in fact all its good gear, and to get in exchange the battered property of its rival. This is the material aspect of the result, but there is a more important element at stake, the loss or gain, namely, of prestige. In the instance to which I refer, the game was keenly contested and feeling ran high. The junior club won eventually by a narrow margin. Whereupon the beaten side declared that the victors had ‘doctored’ the score. Immediately there was uproar, and quiet was restored only when someone proposed that Fr. Doyle should be called in to arbitrate. He gave the case against the defeated eleven. This verdict so exasperated one of the boys that he called Fr. Doyle a ‘damn cheat!’ This outburst cleared the atmosphere and produced a sudden calm, as nobody
knew what would follow this amazing piece of impudence. But Fr. Doyle did nothing. Two or three days passed, and the culprit, who was prepared to take a flogging and hate his Prefect to the end of his days, began to grow sorry for his conduct when he saw that no move was being made against him. At last he apologised, offering to accept punishment, but Fr. Doyle only laughed good humouredly, and gave him biscuits and lemonade and a few pieces of sound advice. Fr. Doyle won a fast friend and a most loyal supporter, but his self-control under the circumstances needed character.”

Most of us would have argued with the boy by telling him how inappropriate he’d been – and have activated his defenses by doing so. Instead, Fr. Doyle activated his admiration by humbly failing to defend himself.

If you’ve found Christ’s words impractical or difficult to imitate, consider imitating this wonderful example instead.