The Case for Humility

Our topic today is “The Case for Humility.”  It might seem perhaps a bit strange that a person would feel it necessary to make a case for humility.  But if we look around us, particularly these days, if there is one thing sadly lacking everywhere we look it is humility.  Humility would appear to be anathema: something to be avoided at all cost.

I’m reminded of the musical Camelot.  Mordred, fully enmeshed in the celebration of himself, recites “The Seven Deadly Virtues.”  He tells us, “I find humility, means to be hurt.  It’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt!”

Sometimes that’s true.  Sometimes being meek can get you run over.  But I have to share with you: I reject the notion that meekness and humility are one and the same.  Indeed, I believe they are not in any way the same.  And we’ll get there in a moment.

But the sentiment that there’s no upside to humility very much reflects our culture today.  Take a look at our politics – if you dare.  I doubt you’ll be surprised that you’re rather unlikely to find much humility … anywhere: not in the candidates nor their followers.  Humility is seen as a sign of weakness.  The meek must inherit the earth, or so I’ve been told; because they sure as heck will never earn it on their own.  Humility is for losers.

And it’s not just politics.  It’s everywhere.  Television, radio, newspapers.  You need to be the best.  You need to look the best.  You need to buy the best, and at the cheapest price possible. And we are told that not to think of ourselves is selfish.  Our economy depends on consumer spending.  So be a good American.  Don’t just keep up with the Jones’: look better, dress better, eat better, be better than “they” are.

Humility is for wimps.  The other night two dear friends shared with me a rather interesting article that suggested that while overblown, what the article calls “grandiose” narcissism was not helpful – I can’t imagine WHO they were talking about! – still, the article goes on, many of us could use a little more narcissism in our lives.  It will help us in our careers.  A little more narcissism will help us live better.  Be better.

So this morning: the case for humility.

Is there something, anything positive to be said about humility?  I think so.  To be honest, I think we gave that quest a good start with our responsive reading this morning.  And I personally believe that, contrary to our current culture, the greatest gift, the greatest gift we can give ourselves, let alone the rest of the world, is not narcissism but humility.  And yes, this ties into belief.  Humility will guide how we see the world, how we interact with the world, how we treat our own beliefs and how we treat the beliefs of others.  Humility is the essence of Interfaith.  But more than that, particularly for our purposes this morning, humility is a sign of strength.

Come again?

In all humility, I will share with you that humility is not weakness.  Humility is not being a doormat.  Humility, as one example, is not just standing there and taking it when someone says or does something you disagree with.  Humility is speaking up, but saying … and meaning, “I hear where you’re coming from and appreciate your point of view; but I disagree and I’d like to share why” as opposed to saying, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.  I don’t know if I should even waste my time telling you how wrong you are.”

Humility does not mean that I’m unsure of who I am.  What it does mean that being who I am does not require my putting down who you are.  This, I believe, is important.

Thus, for me at least, humility is not meekness, it is not lacking belief or commitment.  Humility is acknowledging that despite my beliefs, which are strong – you may have noticed; despite my commitment, which is strong – you may have noticed.  Despite my lack of willingness to be a doormat – which you also may have noticed:  I acknowledge that I’m human.  And you’re human.  And whatever my strongly held beliefs, I should respect our common humanity and listen, truly listen, to yours – even when we don’t agree … especially when we don’t agree.  I believe humility, at its very core, is such a recognition of our common humanity.  Humility, if you will, is humanity without hierarchy.  OMG! I have a sneaking suspicion that that truth is what makes humility seem so dangerous to so many of us.  Humanity without hierarchy.

Moreover, it is a basic and terrible truth that it is when we cast our humility aside that it becomes so very easy to trample upon one another.  Whether it is racial narcissism, gender narcissism, cultural narcissism, political narcissism, spiritual narcissism.  In the musical, Mordred says that “Humility means to be hurt.”  I strongly believe that it is lack of humility that makes it so very easy for us to hurt one another.

One of my favorite plays comes to mind.  It never seems to lose its relevance.  The play is “Inherit the Wind.”  If you don’t know of it, it’s a fictionalized dramatization of the Scopes trial.  School teacher John Thomas Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution in the public schools: which at the time, 1925, was illegal in the state of Tennessee – as well as elsewhere.  The trial brought two true giants of the day into conflict with each other.  Williams Jennings Bryan, three times a candidate for president as well as twice elected a member of the House of Representatives and serving as well as Secretary of State in the Woodrow Wilson administration, argued the case for the prosecution.  Clarence Darrow, whom I trust needs no introduction, argued for the defense.

My favorite quote in the play, the importance of which has never left my head or my heart since I first heard it in my early teens, comes when a young woman is traumatized after being misled by the William Jennings Bryan character and she confronts his wife.  His wife defends him with a simple but so incredibly profound statement.  “He’s a human being,” she says.  “And he makes mistakes.”

He’s a human being.  And he makes mistakes.

We’re all human beings, and we all make mistakes.  Not to acknowledge this is incredibly foolish and, I believe, destructive.  One of our Supreme Court Justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was asked about and made an off-hand, derogatory comment concerning an NFL player who kneeled rather than stood for the national anthem.  A few days later, after looking into it, she contritely and publicly apologized saying, “Barely aware of the incident or its purpose, my comments were inappropriately dismissive and harsh.”

What struck me was not that she was human and made a mistake, but rather that she was willing to admit it and apologize for it without equivocation and without excuses.  “Barely aware of the incident or its purpose, my comments were inappropriately dismissive and harsh.”  This is the essence of humility – the ability to say “I was wrong” without offering excuses.

So what is humility?  I believe it is the difference between “feeling sorry” for someone and having compassion for that person.

What is humility?  It is fully and truly acknowledging our common humanity, even when anger threatens to cloud our vision and hijack our reflexes.

Out of humility comes respect for others.  It is humility that allows us to move from tolerance to respect; or even more basically, from intolerance to tolerance.

We’ve already examined equating meekness and humility and found them not the same.  Now I’d like to look at modesty.

I have long felt that modesty was, by definition, false; but that humility is common sense.  For me, modesty is when you’ve done something well and someone tells you you’ve done that something well, and your response is: “Not really.  It wasn’t that good.”  But all the while, in your heart you know that it was darn good!  For me that’s modesty – for appearances, pretending something that you’ve done well is not as good as you know it is, and thus for me modesty, by definition, is false.

Humility is remembering our place in the universe.  Humility is the ability to do something well without it affecting our ego.  Humility is not having our self-esteem tied up in how well we’ve done something.  It’s enough to do our best, our humble best.

Humility does not relieve me from the obligation of attempting my best.  But humility also tells me that my best is enough, just as your best is enough.

Humility opens my eyes and mind to realize that I don’t have to be “better” than you to do well; that you do not have to fail for me to succeed.  This is so counter-cultural today that I want to repeat it.  You do not need to fail for me to succeed.  Indeed the greatest joy is when we both succeed.

Humility, then, is empowering.  Humility strengthens us.  Humility allows us to move ahead despite, as Shakespeare put it, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

What is the case for humility?  A better world.  A better world for us, for our children and their children.  It is a world where we share, rather than hoard.  It is a world where we heal, rather than destroy.  It is a world worth reaching for.

That is the case for humility.


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