Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Humility? What's That? #1

Lord, we come together with each other and with you in a serious time, with serious concurs about serious matters. Enable us to take ourselves less seriously that we may take you more seriously and be lightened by your Presence and your grace ... Enchant us into becoming more like children, laughing, asking, imagining, and trusting you as the God and Father-Mother in whose spirit we live and move and have our being, and pray. Amen
Excerpt from Loaves, Fishes and Leftovers: Sharing Faith's Deep Questions - Ted Loder

I don't recall which Justice came up with the memorable description but when the Supreme Court was struggling to define obscenity one of them said, "I know it when I see it." I suspect most of us have the same struggle when we try to define "humility" except these days we don't see enough of it to be sure we'd recognize it if we did. The rarity of humility is a serious problem for us, our country, our world. There is a lot of arrogance, privilege, entitlement, dominance, superiority around and I suppose it could be said the humility is the opposite of those traits. In a sense, that may be helpful but, again, the opposite of those traits in our midst is nearly undetectable. Besides, being the opposite of something is too vague a definition.

So, let's give a try to defining it in a more positive way. Most often, humility is thought of as being being submissive, obsequious, passive, compliant, docile, lowly. But, as the old song has it, "It ain't necessarily so!" Not at all! Once when I was a guest preacher in Richmond, VA, the Senior Pastor asked me to accompany him to a men's breakfast meeting at the church. It turned out the focus of the discussion that morning was humility. It was such a slippery subject that no one could get a hold of it. Most men associated it with weakness, groveling, timidity, cowardice, loser. Finally, the pastor asked me what I thought. Being on the spot, I rather causally suggested, "Perhaps humility is the willingness to be humiliated." I am not sure where that thought came from. I suppose it somehow seemed obvious, maybe even a little humorous.

But the gathering didn't see it as obvious or funny, but took it as something of a serendipitous idea. Then I realized maybe it really was that and started seriously considering the idea. I decided, with some of the others there, that my definition was on target but not quite a bulls eye. But at least it was a starting point needing more tweaking than was possible in the limited time of the meeting.

I've since concluded that essentially humility is not really a willingness to be humiliated because you can't be humiliated unless you let yourself be, and if you do you aren't being humble, your letting yourself be a victim for whatever advantage is in being that. Of course, there are exceptions to that view such as those who suffered slavery, the holocaust, collateral damage in war, random violence of crime and you can probably name others. There are people who are truly victims but not because of being humble. They're victims of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or chance circumstance. In a profound way, those victims mostly did not, and do not, let themselves be humiliated. They usually did and do act in ways more noble, more moral, more human than their perpetrators.

But among other things to be considered later, I've concluded that humility is essentially the capacity to think, act and live in plural pronouns. A biblical scholar once said that the most important words in the prayer Jesus taught are, "Our," "Us," and "We." Those words, along with "your," emphasize the community or communal or social dimension of human life as being the key to what it's about. It takes humility to live accentuating plural pronouns.

The word "humble" has its roots in the Greek word for "earth" and "on the ground." It isn't much of a stretch to connect that basis for the word humble to the more primal Genesis story of creation in which God "formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." I believe that in significant part, humility is grounded (pun intended) in keeping that mythic truth constantly in mind -- mythic referring to truth that is too large to be contained by scientific fact, though actually this one is quite close to the theory of evolution in which life started in the muck of earth and took a few millions years longer than in Genesis for human beings to emerge. Either way, both truths refer to the mystery and miracle of life itself, and the origins of human life which we all share in common.

That commonness of us is the focus of the plural pronouns of living with humility. Being humble is to think, act and live for the common good and it is hard to do. It is contrary to the norms of our present society and governance. Evan Thomas, journalism professor at Princeton, wrote this about our present predicament in Newsweek, , March 8, 2010: "Our problem is not the system. It's us -- our 'got mine' culture of entitlement ... Our leaders are paralyzed by the very thought of asking their constituents to make short-term sacrifices for long-term rewards ... lately, politicians seem to have lost the most essential element of the art of governing -- meaningful compromise. In its pure form, compromise means mutual sacrifice. On Capital Hill, there is only getting ... Still, to get something you have to give up something. That is the true test of compromise." This issue of Newsweek came a couple days after I started this post (and Yes, it takes me at least a week to write one) but I'm grateful for Thomas' piece because it gives a more powerful example than I could of why humility is so needed these days.

It would be easy and wrong to conclude that our problems result solely, or even primarily,from the vicious partisanship in and out of Congress even though those leaders do have some notable responsibility for the situation. But Thomas is right, "Our problem ... (is) us." Why? Because our leaders in government are afraid they'll not get re-elected if they ask us for even short-term sacrifices for the common good. And they are right. History shows that, apart from wartime, if leaders ask us to sacrifice any of our "got mine," they lose in the next election. Our leaders reflect us rather than lead us. Only the great ones lead us, like Washington, Lincoln, Martin Luther King among others you know.

In any case, just at this point is where humility becomes definitely assertive, believe it or not. Because humility is willing to risk personally giving up something in order to respect and get something for the plural pronouns, the common good. Humility is not passivity, it is activity. Humility is pragmatic as well as visionary. It fights for its side yet makes compromises in the battle to get something, some portion of what it values, its vision of the good. It sacrifices something like ego because humble people know they are not infallible, not always totally right, and insisting otherwise is to end up with nothing for the common good via the exercise of empty arrogance. Humility is willingness to stay grounded in the common rather than claiming to be exalted above others. And that kind of humility is what helps a country's governance work, helps states, cities, towns,and communities, neighborhoods, and certainly families work.

The problem is us. What if we "got it" about humility and aggressively work to help others "get it" including our representatives in government, our family members, our colleagues, our neighbors. What if we stopped being angry promoters of "got mine, want more" self-interest or sulking passive whiners and blamers. What if we started advocating for sacrifice, for the common good, for brothers and sisters of the plural pronouns, and began living in and for those plural pronouns -- "us, we, ours, yours" -- instead of single ones -- "I, me, mine."

What if we entered the public arena, engaged in the controversial issues by enlisting in organizations with those plural pronoun goals like Common Cause, Earth Justice, Bread for the World, Oxfam, Church World Service, find your own as there ere many. What if we got humbly active in politics and told our leaders we are ready to make sacrifices for our nations good and will work for their re-election if they legislate accordingly? Pipe dream? Maybe. Make an impact? Possibly, if we persist. Build community? Would help. Solve the problem? Not solvable without it. Add humility to the human mix? Like leaven in the lump. Begin to give humility recognition? Doesn't need that, only a good try. Worth it? Up to you, and the future.

More about this later? Count on it.

Think about it. Ted

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