I once heard a minister deliver a sermon entitled “Humble Pie a la Mode.” A clever title—and a perfect instance of how we tend to view humility, especially in the context of liberal religion: humility is not a virtue, but rather a problem, a symptom of lacking a healthy ego. Oh, we may give some lip service to humility and talk of the importance of not being self-centered, of not insisting on having our way all the time but occasionally letting another’s way prevail. But we give far more energy and attention to building up the self, encouraging self-assertion, praising what we do, taking credit for being good people.
All of which can be valuable perspectives in a spiritual tradition, especially given what sometimes seems a preoccupation with our failings in some varieties of spirituality. But in order to grow and be of service in the world, the positive view of the self needs to be tempered with a healthy skepticism towards the self, its motives, what it sets as goals. That skepticism is especially needed in a culture where pursuing whatever the self wants is deemed to be the best way to live.
Yet our conversations about humility and a strong ego seem often to devolve into absolute opposites and extremes: humility becomes akin to humiliation, a complete debasing of the self, while a strong ego becomes narcissism, a complete idolization of the self. Finding a midpoint, where the self is valued but not worshipped, where stepping back or stepping down become moves of compassion and strength rather than despair, can seem impossible.
My life has taught me most about humility in times when I have run smack into limits, where nothing I did or said made one whit of difference, where I could not go any farther in an undertaking, in a relationship, in some spiritual practice, in whatever the next moment was bringing me. I might throw myself against those limits many times and for a very long time before the day would come when I could no longer believe that just a bit more effort and cleverness on my part would get me past the limit. Then, in something akin to the first of the Twelve Steps in which one admits that life has become unmanageable, I find myself saying or thinking, “I give up. I can’t do this anymore.” And that humility, of honestly acknowledging that not everything is possible, that I am not immortal nor invincible, mysteriously opens me to receiving the help I need to move beyond limits—not overcoming them, since many limits cannot be overcome, but learning how to work with them, live with them with the assistance of others, of what I might call God.
With that opening to help beyond myself, I begin to realize the wisdom of ancient traditions that first pointed to the cultivation of humility as a virtue: an experience of being humbled, a willingness to admit I cannot do everything nor do I know everything, makes it possible for me to see all that is beyond the circle of myself and to know, deeply know, I do not travel through life alone. Then humility becomes not something hard but, almost, a blessing.