The challenge of not faking humility

A thorny problem

It's hard not to fake humility; yet, seemingly, we need to do just that, writes Ron Rolheiser.

For instance, some of the sayings of Jesus on humility seem to raise more questions than they answer. For example, in the parable of taking seats at the table, Jesus suggests that we should not move towards the highest place, lest somebody more important comes along and we will be humiliated by being asked to move lower.

Rather, he says, move towards the lowest place so that the host might come and ask us to move higher, and in this way our very humility will be showcased before the other guests. Whoever humbles himself will be exalted, and whoever exalts himself will be humbled. On the surface, this would seem like little more than a strategy to get honored while all the while looking humble.

The biblical invitation to not consider oneself better than others begs the question: Can someone who is living an essentially moral and generous life really believe that he or she is no better than someone who is uncaring, selfish, or even malicious in how he or she relates to God, others, and the world? Do we really believe that we are no better than others?  Did Mother Teresa really believe in her heart that she was no better than anyone else?

Could she really look at herself and say: 'I'm just as great a sinner as there is on this planet?' Or, did she, and must we, in the end, feign humility because we don't really believe that we're no better than what's worst on this planet?

And so we can ask ourselves: Is our belief that we are no better than others, often times, really only a pose, something we have to affirm about ourselves but which doesn't stand the full test of honesty?  Further, isn't our humility, in the end, really not just a subtle strategy to be honored in a deeper, more-respected way? Who wants to be seen as proud and full of himself? And, can we ever be humble without then taking pride in that? Do we really believe that we are no better than anyone else?

I'm partial to an insight John Shea once offered in trying to answer this. Looking at some diary entries by Bede Griffiths, where Griffiths openly confesses that he is no better than anyone else, Shea asks whether given the quality of Griffiths' moral and spiritual life and given the depth and compassion he developed through years of prayer and discipline could Griffiths really have believed that he was no better than anyone else? Could he really not compare himself with others? Is it really possible for any of us not to compare ourselves with others?


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