When the news reached the king of Nineveh,
he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe,
covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.
Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh,
by decree of the king and his nobles:
“Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep,
shall taste anything;
they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water.
Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God;
every man shall turn from his evil way
and from the violence he has in hand.
Humility is not the same thing – at all – as humiliation.
Instead, humility is about coming to have a true picture of ourselves, about acknowledging what truly is. In order to be free of fears and anxieties, we have to sort out what is and is not ours. We all have gifts as well as characteristics that aren’t so helpful. We also have really good qualities and characteristics.Taking time to sort that out – which can be done with the help of a spiritual director, a 12-step sponsor, a confessor, or by journaling, among other ways – is often a major life turning point. Acknowledging that we are a mixed bag of choices, habits and qualities, just like every other person on the planet, really focuses the picture. If we know what’s true about us and what’s not, then it’s much easier to see some new things.
One new thing is how to respond when someone lashes out at us, unjustly accuses us of something – or, the other side of that coin – lavishly praises us or gives us credit beyond what is due. In that kind of situation, if the feedback isn’t true, there’s no need to attach to it. Really, almost no need to respond in many cases. It isn’t accurate, and therefore it isn’t a reliable foundation on which to proceed. We can just let it go. Let it go.
Another thing that humility brings onto focus is what we may have overlooked, which, if received with equanimity, can be a real gift. I am not always good at following up on communication about work plans, but that wasn’t in clear focus for me until someone pointed it out. Her plain, unvarnished remark, ” if you had called me back about this, I would have known what to do before I got here,” was an opportunity for me to examine not only that particular failing, but also whether that is a habit that I could perhaps work on changing. It showed me that sometimes I get so caught up in my own tasks that I forget to think about what other people need to know about them. Does that make me a bad person? No, it makes me a person who sometimes gets so caught up in my own tasks that I forget to think about what other people need to know. That’s all. Do I still forget to tell people what I’m up to? Yes. But sometimes now I do remember. The picture is clearer than it was.
Yet another thing humility clarifies is what our gifts are. We live in a culture where that’s sometimes hard to see without help. Advertisers and media tell us we ought to be a certain way, and to want certain things, and it’s easy to get caught up in those things. But it’s good to keep in mind that those messages are not really for our benefit. They’re intended to exploit our innate desires for the purpose of getting us to buy the things that the advertisers promise will fulfill them, only they don’t. Straightening your teeth isn’t going to find you a friend or a spouse. Changing your hair color isn’t the key to happiness.
There’s nothing wrong with fixing your teeth or coloring your hair if that’s something you want to do. But those aren’t your gifts.
Gifts are given for the good of community, we are told in 1 Peter 4:10: “And let each one of you serve your neighbor with the gift you have received from God, as good stewards of the unique grace of God.” Generosity, hospitality, the ability to listen, to be kind, to work hard, to offer healing: these are our gifts. If we neglect or deny them out of a false sense of humility, that serves no one. Creativity, appreciation, humor, a sense of wonder, patience. Which of these are your gifts? What gifts do you offer to the community that aren’t on this list?
There’s a sister in my community who is no longer able to work because of age and disability. She told me recently that her current ministry is to notice what is good about people and to tell them about it. I think that’s a really fine practice for anyone, no matter what else they are or are not able to do.
What do you need to know about yourself so that you can offer yourself to the world without reservation?
–Baya Clare CSJ