Friday, November 04, 2005

On humility

Over at his excellent blog, Bittersweet Life, Ariel has initiated something that he calls "blog-table discussions," in which he asks others to post their takes on topics that, to his mind, are stimulating and challenging, as happened with our earlier discussion here on the "test of time" with regard to determining what makes a classic "classic." Ariel's also created a nifty button that he encourages his participants to down- and upload to their posts on these topics, but I've not yet figured out how to keep his little, contained image from expanding into some pixellated, radioactive-looking monstrosity when I try to upload it here. So, for now, this post will be image-less.

Anyway. Ariel's current topic is called "And How Do You Spell 'Humility'?" Since Ariel is an avid Kansas Jayhawks' basketball fan, I suspect that he occasionally has troubles maintaining a humble heart, though I also suspect the upcoming Big XII season will help a bit with that little dilemma, at least for this year. Actually, his question as I understand it is, How does one practice humility in a proactive way--that is, in one's life? His question has an added resonance given the fact that he is a seminarian.

Good question. Certainly an intriguing one. Here are some thoughts that immediately come to mind.


"Practicing humility" at first glance seemed like an oxymoron to me--rather like the Buddhist goal of desiring not to desire. I remember reading a one-liner somewhere long ago that says something like, "As soon as you say you have humility, you've lost it." To be aware of it in that way is to actually achieve humility's opposite, pride.

As a teacher, I wonder about this issue as well. I've come to believe that a teacher's good work in the classroom is an exercise in humbleness, if not humility. It would be easy--and I've seen it happen, as I'm sure some of my readers have--for a well-trained instructor, enamored of the resonance of his/her voice and the keenness of his/her intellect, to make the classroom a platform for the display of those attributes. But though certainly good teaching has a performative aspect to it, if the classroom is ONLY about display, then what's going on there is not teaching but seduction: the instructor is certainly self-seduced, and if the occasional undergrad is as well, intellectually or otherwise, well, that's just gravy.

But if the instructor (or minister or doctor or politician or . . .) can get past the temptation of self-adulation and remind him- or herself that s/he is in service to a Greater Good that demands, well, servitude by virtue of the fact that it is a Good worthy of being served, then the grounds for a proactive humility seem less oxymoronic. That attitude, it seems to me, is akin to what Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:3: "But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." The lack of self-awareness advocated here leads to a reduced risk of self-congratulation (see also Jesus' teachings that we pray in secret, hide the fact that we are fasting, etc.--or, for that matter, the admonition that we deny self).

That Greater Good, by the way, acknowledges being served only sporadically and often indirectly, I'm here to tell you--so much so, in fact, that when that acknowledgement does come, it doesn't inflate the ego, it just manages to nourish it. Thus, teachers must quickly cultivate their capacities for patience and belief in what they are doing despite that roaring silence that is the lack of explicit response, or they do not survive as teachers. It is reminiscent of the story of Jesus' healing of the 10 lepers: only one returns to thank Jesus, and Jesus, in a humorously incredulous manner, asks, "Were not 10 healed?" But then Jesus tells the one who returns, "Your faith has made you well." That seems to be a healthy attitude for teachers to maintain as well: that the student bears some responsibility for learning that lies beyond the teacher's responsibility to teach as well as s/he knows how. Humility lies in part, therefore, in recognizing the limits of one's own efforts--and, for that matter, the limits of the credit one can take for others' achievements.

So: back to the question of a proactive humility. As I just now typed that, I was reminded of something Thoreau writes in Walden: "Men say, practically, Begin where you are and such as you are, without aiming mainly to become of more worth, and with kindness aforethought go about doing good. If I were to preach at all in this strain, I should say rather, Set about being good" (emphases mine). It would seem to me, then, that to be proactively humble is NOT simply stopping the writing (or the reading) of a blog post about humility and going out and serving others but, rather, to cultivate an essential humility. Putting humility into action will then take care of itself. You will do what is right because it is right on its own terms, and not in expectation of reward or acknowledgement as or beyond the results of its doing.

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4 comments:

Ariel said...

Great thoughts, John. With the exception of your misread on the KU front, you really skewered the paradox at the heart of "proactive" humility. It does seem oxymoronic at first glance. Like so many "self-help" techniques, it could lead to a greater obsession with the self...

As you conclude, it seems like humility must be a matter of essence before it can be translated into meaningful acts. That is, humility is not an existential reality we can embrace. I could spend my days begging for alms and making self-deprecating jokes, and be feeding a smouldering arrogance in the process...

For the truly humble to exist, a Greater Good has to make an entrance.

Now about the Jayhawks. Apparently no one has told you yet that they are God's team?

Camille said...

I've come to believe that a teacher's good work in the classroom is an exercise in humbleness, if not humility.

I can't think of a more humbling experience than teaching. Standing in front of a bunch of humans and giving them clues and hoping that they can follow you to whatever pre-planned epiphany you hope is in store. The message completely engulfs the messanger as the students discover their own treasures. Or it doesn't work, and you have just wasted hundreds of combined man-hours. Either way, a lot is riding on the teacher's ability to become invisible.

Raminagrobis said...

Your comments on teaching are spot-on, I think. In my brief spell as a lecturer/tutor I pretty much came to the conclusion that I'm not really cut out for teaching - I talk too much, and can't quite see past my own intellectual vanity, and I tend to think of students as opponents to be destroyed.

Incidentally, while reading about Nothing this week, I came across a quote by Isaac of Nineveh that sums things up quite nicely:

"Humility collects the soul into a single point by the power of silence. A truly humble man has no desire to be known or admired by others, but wishes to form himself into himself, to become nothing, as if he had never been born. When he is completely hidden to himself in himself, he is completely with God."

Raminagrobis said...

And in the light of that, your suggestion that humility is a concept analogous to 'Buddha nature' seems all the more apt. Very Zen.

I haven't really added anything to answer the question of 'proactive humility', I realize; but lacking a religious conceptual framework, the notion of humility doesn't really mean much to me. And I don't quite see Thoreau's point. If humility is 'being good' without the aid of reason, then all goodness is is mere habit or doxa.

I suppose I don't really 'believe in' humility at all. If true humilty were achievable, it would be the end of us. I'm with La Rochefoucauld on this one.