Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Paradox of Humility

"Embraced by the Light"
- at the Desert Retreat House -

I was at the gym yesterday. CNN droned on in the background reporting the latest presidential election “news” and a person standing next to me made the offhanded remark: “I don’t think it’s possible to run for president and be a humble person.” I thought about that remark for a bit and then, without getting into a heated political debate, simply replied: “Well, I guess that depends on what you mean by “humble.”

Personally I believe the word “humility” is often misused and misunderstood and it carries a rather negative connotation when used in today’s popular culture. Many people think of a humble person as someone with a poor self-image. Humble people are defined as  “losers” who are always “giving in” to the demands of others, people who don’t have the stamina or the courage to stand up for themselves.  Furthermore humility is often associated with humiliation - you humiliate someone by insulting them, knocking them down “a peg or two."

As I see it, this is not at all what it means to be humble. In fact, humility is a necessary virtue on any spiritual path.

I sometimes wonder if  “humility” is so often misunderstood because it is such a “paradoxical” virtue and lots of people nowadays have a hard time understanding a paradox? We want things to be “clear-cut,” “black or white,” “either-or,” but a paradox embraces what appears to be two seemingly opposing ideas, a paradox is “both-and.”

The paradox of “humility” is that, when I am truly humble, I recognize that I am infinitesimally small and yet enormously important both at the same time. Humble people understand that they are little more than a tiny speck in the cosmos and at the same time they intimately belong to the entire universe.

A while back, the New York Times featured a wonderfully insightful article about how each and every single one of us is deeply and intimately connected to the universe, a connection so profound that it goes beyond the scope of our limited minds, even beyond our wildest imaginations:

The iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones and the oxygen we breathe
are the physical remains, the ashes, the dust of stars
that lived and died long ago.

Since most of us are confined to a narrow strip near earth’s surface,
we tend to think of the cosmos as a lofty inaccessible realm
far beyond reach and relevance.
We forget that only a thin sliver of atmosphere
separates us from the entire universe.

Our early human ancestors looked up at the skies and they were humble enough to surrender to the mystery of it all, allowing themselves to be transported into transcendence, to experience themselves as greater than their own isolated individual self. In our own contemporary society, as we look for our clear-cut explanation for everything in life, we may do well to be humble enough to emulate our ancient ancestors.

Jesus often talks about losing one’s false self in order to find one’s true self. The Buddha teaches a similar wisdom when he says that the individual, separated ego is nothing more than a false delusion because everything and everyone is a dynamic web of interconnection.

Jesuit priest and author, Anthony DeMello, puts it this way:

To lose the self is to suddenly realize that you are something
other than what you thought you were.
You thought you were the center,
You thought you were the dancer,
you now experience yourself as the dance.

A humble person knows he or she is the dance and not the dancer.

Obviously I was unable to say all this to that guy standing next to me at the gym yesterday. If I see him there again I may invite him to read this so we can sit own and chat. 

The more I think about it, presidential candidates can be humble people. In fact, I think they should be.

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