Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 3, 2004
“Well,” the program chair said, “would you mind if we put it into a special fund we’ve started?”
“Of course not,” the speaker said. “What is the special fund for?”
“It’s so we can get a better speaker next year,” the chairman replied.
Life is full of humbling experiences.
The great opera star Maria Callas was not a woman known for her self-effacing manner. She came to Spoleto in Italy in 1958 to sign her comtract to appear in the famous opera festival there. When all the paperwork was completed, and the contracts signed, Callas took the hand of the director of the festival, Gian Carlo Menotti, and congratulated him for the money he had just saved. Menotti looked puzzled; Callas had not come cheap; she had cost the festival organizers one pretty bunch of lira. But then Callas explained to them that—yes, indeed—they had saved a great deal of money, and here was why: They would not need to spend great amounts on fancy sets and décor, which would just detract the audience’s attention from her brilliant voice. They would not have to hire a famous, expensive tenor to accompany her—for the great Callas could certainly carry the show on her own, and the crowds would flock to hear her, no matter who else was singing. “But I have just hired Luchino Visconti as director,” Menotti said. “Wonderful!” Callas exclaimed. “I like Visconti very much.” But then, after a moment, she added: “He lacks just one thing: Humility!”
Perhaps humility is one of those characteristics we appreciate more in others than in ourselves.
As we do with everything else, of course, we human ones have this way of pushing this humility thing a bit too far sometimes. “Humility is no substitute for a good personality,” Fran Liebowitz once said. Another wit once remarked that it’s easy to be humble when you’re not particularly good at anything anyway!
But the fact of the matter, of course, is that every human being—every precious and beloved child of God—is good at something—at innumerable things. If we listen to our Inner Voice—the voice of God in our souls—then are graced with the ability to know our potentialities and our callings, and to help others discern theirs as well. “The [golden] mean is proper pride,” Aristotle said. “the excess is known as a sort of empty vanity, and the deficiency [is] undue humility.” False humility wears thin as quickly as vanity and arrogance do, and perhaps the Greeks had it right: the key to life lies in finding some kind of balance.
Humility ought never to be purchased at the expense of healthy self-esteem. Walking humbly through life does not mean turning yourself into some kind of a bath mat over which others may trample at will. It doesn’t mean giving—giving—giving—until we become burnt out and exhausted and totally spent.
The goal of healthy religion, it seems to me, is not to produce self-denigrating martyrs, but rather, to help produce emotionally-healthy, self-activated human beings. Traditional religion in the West (and in the East, too, I think) has not always been as helpful in this regard as it might have been.
To say, as the Book of Common Prayer does, that “there is no health in us,” insults the very Source which gave us being. To say that there is no health in the Creation is to utter blasphemy against the Creator. It is not a sin to be glad that we’re alive.
No—there is much health in us; more health than our alienated world allows us to know sometimes. Sometimes, the health within our souls is blocked by all the “baggage” we’ve accumulated over the years; blocked by the pain of all of our assumed and inherited emotions, especially shame, and guilt, and rage. Sometimes, it lies crushed beneath the burdens of all that life has dealt us; or numbed by the disease of addiction.
But even though we may not always see it, our deep inner goodness is there; it’s waiting to be rescued and redeemed; waiting to be uncovered, like a rose waiting beneath the deep-piled snow.
Good, honest pride—pride in being human; pride in being the unique and unrepeatable human being that each of us is—can be an important spiritual force in helping us to become the co-creators of a blessed, peaceful, just planet Earth we are all called to be.
But we are not sustained by pride alone; there is a place for humility, as well. And humility requires certain things of us…
Humility requires us to look beyond our own circumstances to the circumstances of others (and to draw that circle of concern was widely as we may). Norman Cousins reminds us that each of us is but a single cell in the six billion cells of the great body of humankind. “[Our] needs are individual,” Cousins writes, “but they are not unique.” It is our sense of compassion—our deep sense of empathy and interdependence—which makes possible our deepest reverence for life.
Humility does not require that we wallow co-dependently in the pain of others; nor does it require that we take on inordinate guilt about our own good fortune. But a true sense of humility reminds us that noblesse oblige: it reminds us that, if we are to be true to our divine birthright, that our good fortune obligates us to the service of others, and that each of us has a role to play in helping to heal the pain of all the creatures of our Mother Earth.
Humility also requires that we acknowledge our limitations.
Canute the Dane was conqueror and king of England during the early years of the 11th century. Chroniclers tell us that, more than anything, he loathed the obsequiousness of his royal retinue. He grew so tired of all the excessive praise and flattery they heaped upon him, that one day Canute ordered that his throne be brought down to the seashore. He then gathered together all of his court, and had them stand all around him: There were mounted calvary and knights in shining armor, and musicians and priests and bishops and lords and ladies of the Court, all gathered together, in all of their worldly splendor and extravagance. All this “great party” stood by the side of the “great king” as he sat atop his steed by the side of the sea.
Then, they just stood there. And as the tide began to come in, and the waves started to dash against the shore, Canute held up his scepter, and he commanded the tides to cease, and the waves to stop.
Well, the sea didn’t listen. The incoming tides soon proved the futility of the all the king’s commanding, the absurdity of all the false glory that had been heaped upon him. The king got soaked. His retinue got soaked. So Canute hoped that an important lesson about humility managed to sink in as well.
As great as any of us are—as much as we have accomplished in life—as powerful as we might appear in the eyes of the world—however much we seem to have achieved as far as the trappings of worldly “success” are concerned-- as long and extensive as our resumes may be—there are factors in life which we do not control. It might seem almost cliché to say it; it may seem self-apparent; it goes without saying, perhaps.
But sometimes, when things keep going well for us, we become alienated from the deeper wellsprings of our humility, and we might even delude ourselves into thinking that we can control other people, or that we can control the events of our lives, or that we can even control forces beyond ourselves. That’s a dangerous and destructive way to think—for ourselves, no less than for those around us. Usually—thankfully, I think-- when we start thinking this way, the tides of life have this way of reminding us that we’re not in control of everything, and it’s not too long before we find ourselves all wet, too.
Humility also reminds us that while each of us might have our own truths, that none of us owns the truth. One thing that both totalitarian political systems and fundamentalist religions lack is humility. Proponents of both claim that their systems are closed, unchangeable, one and the same with the capital-t Truth.
Anytime that we assume that our own way of doing things is the “only” way, or the “right” way—anytime we attempt to impose our values upon another person (or upon another nation)—anytime we judge others according to our standards, without remembering that others have their own criteria for what is true and right and just—anytime we expect someone to tolerate our choices in life without extending the same courtesy to them—anytime we do any of these things—then we are trampling over the boundaries of others and treating them in an unjust manner. We are doing violence to their beings, and to their souls.
Our humility restores some sense of compassion in our living. It reminds us, ceaselessly, continually: “Don’t rush to judgment.” Don’t rush to stand over others in judgment, but rather, seek ways to stand beside them in compassion and under-standing.
It is from humility that compassion arises. And it is from compassion that love and justice flow.
Some religions would tell us that there is no health in us; that we human beings are irretrievably bound to sin and evil. Most of us here will have no truck with that bunk. But it is possible, of course, to go to the other extreme. I think that one problem with our particular religious outlook sometimes is that we put too much stress of the place of humanity in the great scheme of things, and ignore those forces greater than humanity. Anthropocentrism—the idea that humanity ought to be viewed at the center of everything—has helped to aggravate so many of our world’s problems.
Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, was a mighty king in his own right. But wherever he went, he was accompanied by two men, whose duty it was to say to him each morning: “Philip, remember you are but a man.” And each evening, they would say to the king: “Philip, have you remembered that you are but a man?”
Perhaps when we become enamored of our human self-importance, we could use a couple of living, breathing angels like that following us around. They would remind us that we human ones are but inheritors of this great mystery and wonder; we are not its Source. We need to be reminded, too, that we share this Earth with so many other blessed species of creation, and that we, no doubt, rely on them much more than they rely on us.
If we human beings are to learn to live once again in balance upon this beautiful planet which is our home, we need to recover, as a species, our deep sense of humility.
As a rancher out in the Dakotas, Theodore Roosevelt developed an appreciation for the natural world unusual in a public man. Before retiring to bed each night, Roosevelt and his friend, the naturalist William Beebe, would go out and search the sky. First of all, they would try to find a tiny patch of light near the constellation Pegasus.
“That is the spiral galaxy in Andromeda,” one of them would say.
The other would reply, almost as a chant: “It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one-hundred billion suns, each one larger than our Sun.”
Then Roosevelt would turn to his companion and say, “Now I think we are small enough. It’s time to go to bed.”
Humility is the sources of all true spirituality. It is our innate sense of humility—our deep inner sense that we inhabit a cosmos infinitely larger than we are—more expansive than our human reasoning can ever comprehend—which gives rise to our yearning to be fed and nurtured spiritually.
Being humble means knowing ourselves as children of one Great Mystery; it means knowing ourselves alive “under the gaze of all eternity”.
On a human level, being humble means knowing that we’re never going to achieve everything we set out to accomplish; that all of our goals will never be realized; that one human lifetime is never enough time to achieve everything that we would like to achieve.
Walking humbly with our God means being constantly, wondrously thankful for the gifts of grace we have achieved. It also means knowing that these gifts are ours to share, ours to use in service of something greater than ourselves.
May we each drink deeply from our own sources of inspiration a deep cup of creative, healthy humility. With that spirit flowing within us, may we then reach out to one another, and to all of our sisters and brothers on this, our Mother, our planet, our dear Earth.