Humility is a much neglected virtue in the modern world; everyone wants to be a ‘winner’ and the implicit assumption is that nice people finish last, that understating yourself is a strategic mistake, and that humility, basically, is for wimps. Like the virtue of ‘meekness’ it is perceived as a negative virtue for those lacking what might be termed, colloquially, ‘bottle’. This, I think, is a serious mistake and arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of what humility is.
Humility and humble are etymologically derived from the Latin, humus, which means ‘ground’, and ground is low, as opposed to being high. So to be humble or to practise humility is to be of the round, of the earth. What does that mean?
Three things spring to mind. First, that to be of the earth is to be aware and sensitized to the fact that we live in seasons, and more particularly that there is a time to live and a time to die, paraphrasing Ecclesiastes. It is not resisting the flow of things as they are because this is ‘me’, and I am self-evidently a ‘special’ case. Further, it is not arguing with the nature of the universe and taking
great delight in blaming God or whoever when things go wrong. I am sure you know the sort of thing I mean: where was God when my mother, son, or whoever died? This is a kind of vaunting and defiance against reality; of course, nobody wants or likes death, or any of the other injuries that come to us
through time, but the humble person sees and accepts there are seasons for all things, and that unmitigated joy is not the lot of anyone born on this world.
Second, being of the earth enables one to see the interconnectedness of everything. We need each other if we are to thrive, and not just live or exist; but more than that we need all the living things that the world holds. In reality we are dependent on them; sometimes it is the lowliest creatures which are the most important – the plankton in the oceans, the earthworms in the ground, and so
on. What this means is that the humble person values all creatures, and all living things, recognising the interdependence of everything. When we treat the fruits of the earth as mere commodities, as mere stuff to fuel our fantasies and ambitions, then we are arrogant and proud, and we are not of the earth – we destroy the Earth and in return the Earth gets round to destroying us.
Third, and finally for now, being of the earth means spending less time in our heads, in our minds, thinking. Thinking for most people is a comparative activity and it is relentless and harmful. Comparing themselves with others and concluding we are superior, or even inferior, on an on-going basis puffs up the mind with notions of difference and specialness; it creates barriers between people.
Instead we should spend more time in what the Chinese call the Dan Tien, the point about
two inches below our belly buttons, the centre of gravity of the whole body, and the gut – the place of balance, the point of instinct, and where we direct our breathing when we meditate. This is not to denigrate thinking per se, but to remind us that when we are of the earth we are much more centred, and therefore balanced. Ultimately it means we slow down – smell the roses and actually ‘do’
all the clichés we like to allude to, but often fail to implement.
Humility is not only spiritually good for us, it also has enormous health benefits too, as well as helping us in our relationships with others. Why not be humble, then? Perhaps it’s because of old and bad habits; perhaps it’s to do with poor, early and continuing conditioning; and perhaps it’s because people don’t want to be of the earth when they can aspire to their own private delusions of heaven.