Our relationship was always a rocky one, marked by misunderstanding, mistrust, ambiguity, and quarrelsomeness. Other people said we were perfect for each other, a match not only made in, but blessed by heaven itself. But somehow or other, I could never quite relate. Something always seemed “off.” That was pointed out to me as evidence that I reallyneeded this relationship. I went along with it for many years, and then somehow found the courage to simply end the relationship. It was over between Humility and me. Over. Done.
I really don’t recall when Humility reappeared in my life. There were occasional contacts, intermittent flirtations, very sporadic at first. Part of it had been that I didn’t like the crowd Humility hung out with—humiliate and humiliation, for example. There were others, too—shame, abase, debase, demean, degrade, belittle, cause to feel small, and some other unsavory characters. When Humility reappeared, though, the cohort had broken up.
The Humility I had known was in fact a mean-spirited masquerade, slightly if at all related to true humility. Curious, I ran a background check. I’d had a philosophy professor in grad school who sent us off to the library with a weekly assignment. He gave us each a word, and we were charged with looking up its origins and history in the massive Oxford Dictionary of the English Language. I always enjoyed that assignment, and I’m still fascinated by word origins and how their meanings and usage evolve over time.
Humility, as it turns out, has an intriguing and frankly, to my way of thinking at least, illustrious past. Its roots go back to at least 1375 in written form, although it probably existed prior to that in oral usage. Its most immediate ancestor ishumilis, which means low. Ummmmm… However, go back further, and that word derives from the Latin humus, which means earth or soil.
So, to name humility as a virtue is to acknowledge that we are of the earth. We, along with everything else that was, is, and shall be, are earthy, earthen. It is to recognize our kinship, our equality, with all life. We share in both the wholeness and the brokenness of life, in its glory and its pain.
True humility, as I’ve come to understand it, is a sense of perspective, a willingness not only to acknowledge but to affirm joyfully that ours isn’t the only point of view, the only preferable lifestyle, the single right belief or whatever. It’s an openness to other ways of thinking, of doing, of being. It’s a willingness to learn from others, to engage in open, loving encounters and be changed by them. It’s a willingness to listen. It’s a generosity of heart and spirit that invites openness and trust. It offers others a sense of safety. It offers us the ease that comes with not having to be right, with not having to be perfect, with not having to defend ourselves against attacks on our righteousness and rightness.
It is pernicious false humility to put ourselves beneath others. True humility embraces all within the same web of life, recognizing and indeed celebrating that we are all deserving of respect and dignity. When we can love ourselves in both our wondrousness and our imperfection, our strength and our weakness, we can reach out to others with the same acceptance. Humility is part of what binds our beloved community together beyond our disagreements, beyond fears and discomfort. May it be so among us.