Monday, May 2, 2011

Humility is the road to peace of mind.

There’s a line from the prophet Micah that was included in the Shabbos service when I was a kid:

He has shown you, puny human, what is good. 
So, what is it that your Creator requires of you? 
Just this: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. *

Perhaps this line became important to me because it was a particular favorite of my dad’s, a just and humble fellow if there ever was one, but that word “humble” can be tricky. People mistake humbleness for humiliation, and seek to avoid it. Or they think that humbling oneself is to lay oneself low. The dictionary defines it variously as meek, modest, deferential, submissive, having or showing a low estimate of one’s own importance. Well, now, there’s the problem, right there. Isn’t there another way to understand the concept of humbleness?

Mother, whose heart hung humble as a button on the bright, silver shroud of her son, do not weep, war is kind.

This poem by Stephen Crane brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. That one line in particular . . . humble as a button . . .

Those things that are common and useful, and not arrogant or flashy, those are humble things. Let me be useful, and I’ll be happy. Why should there be shame in serving others? Why not be a button? There’s a whole lot of pressure to be extraordinarily beautiful, to achieve greatness, or perform amazing feats. Reality TV is about catapulting ordinary people into the glorious light of celebrity. Maybe celebrity is a lie. Maybe it’s enough to be ordinary. Maybe its wonderful to be ordinary.

The gods certainly love ordinary. They made a whole lot of it. My gods disapprove of human pride because it’s a source of so much sin. In various cultures, blanket weavers and quilt makers and potters and house builders leave some imperfection in their work, so as to assure the gods that we know our place and our place is humble. The ancient Greeks held hubris to be a particularly onerous sin. Hubris is an arrogant pride that sets one person above another and that sets humans above the gods. Oh, how many men are guilty of hubris in our world today, thinking that they can possess everything, rule over the the globe, decide for others what is right and wrong, rape the earth and plunder our resources with lofty aplomb.

One Sunday morning years ago, I heard a kind pastor preach about humility. He said that true humility was accepting our limitations with grace. We're limited by our nature and we are limited in the particulars of our person. How much I fight against this awareness, afraid to be imperfect, ashamed somehow not to have risen above the rest, never to have sold my art to a museum or written a definitive philosophical tome or pop best seller. I’m not so special, except in the specialness I share with every blade of grass of oak tree leaf. And that, of course, is special enough. But the pastor didn’t end there. He said that there were two sides to humility, that we are also all wonderful creatures, thrilling in our expression of the Creator’s will and amazingly unique. He said that there’s a certain dark pride to be found in self-deprecation, and certainly, when our self-esteem is low, we can’t fulfill the potential of our sparkling humanness.

To be humble, therefore, was to be clear about the truth of oneself and to accept that truth with grace. I'm limited, it’s true. I’m also a fantastic person with many blessings. That balanced humility is where peace of mind can be found. I can just be myself, in all my beauty and disaster. Funny how I keep growing into my name.
Best to you,
Puny Human

*my translation . . . can you tell? LOL!

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