Humility isn’t something moderns seem to value these days. We like to post on social media all of our achievements, adventures, wise opinions/advice, lofty goals, and shiny new experiences and things. The concept of humility is often reserved for those who have come from lower, aka humble, beginnings in life, who started from less than desirable circumstances.
Yet when I think about exuding humility myself, or what it looks like in others, I often have been too quick to define it as self-deprecation, diminishing one’s intelligence, minimizing achievements, inability to accept compliments, or some other form of self-injurious penance. Too often I have confused humility with insecurity. And I vouch to say that we as a society do too.
But just as humility should not be confused with insecurity we should be equally as careful not to take up humility as something to excel at. Attempting to be a humble person can turn into a laundry list of things to tick off (as much of religion is often regarded). One can easily be clouded by their own perfectionism and confidence and in turn end up embodying the opposite of humility: an arrogant confidence.
Humility defined, then, as a state which one moves up from in life, as masked insecurity, or as a characteristic to master, misses the mark. All of these lack the awareness of one’s place in relation to the Creator. All three remain consumed with one thing and one thing only, navel gazing, the very opposite of humility.
I have been guilty of all of these at one time or another. I am often guilty of revering humility as another quality to obtain and work toward. When I’ve tried to focus so much on trying to produce humility, I end up with a poorly done replica of the real thing. I essentially become a little perfectionist falling short of the true restfulness that humility actually gives. Sound familiar? I don’t think I am alone in this misguided quest. It’s existed for as long as humans have. The Pharisees in the Gospels had it down pat.
In his Rule, St. Benedict offers a solution to us trying to squeeze out humility like the last drop of toothpaste (which is annoying and most often produces a meagre portion). He surprisingly spends less time giving a definition of humility, and more time providing us with a 12 step “how to” to show us what it looks like to actually embody the characteristic. Sounds like a perfectionist’s dream; 12 steps to check off a list sounds doable, right? It’s not as easy as it sounds. In fact, it’s not about checking off the list at all.
St. Benedict requests a shift in focus. Instead of all the navel gazing, the peering inward in an attempt to be more humble, or adopting certain phrases or ways of thinking about ourselves that make us seem more humble, Benedict suggests we first look upward. Humility, for Benedict,is rooted in an understanding of our place in relationship to the Creator of the universe.