For a long time, I thought that there were just four virtuous attitudes, or habits of the heart (hope, faith, love, and gratitude), that would guide us to the course of right action. And then I had an epiphany (just in time for the season, since January 6th is the Epiphany with a capital E). If Pride, or as it was previously called, Vainglory, is the queen of the deadly sins, then it must have an opposite, a virtue that holds it in check. That virtue is humility. Humility is the hardest of all virtues to cultivate, because it requires owing up to your shortcomings and limitations. It’s also the most liberating, because it means that not everything is your responsibility. Lacking all of Superman’s powers, you are not called on to exercise your superpowers 24/7 on behalf of all those in need or aid, wisdom, or sustenance. That awareness frees you to do jigsaw puzzles or watch ESPN or the new season of Bridgerton without guilt, knowing that you have done the best you could with the gifts and skills that you do have.
If you are a bit late on your list of New Year’s resolutions, let me suggest that cultivating humility might be a good addition to the list. Humility is a partner with gratitude for the gifts and good deeds and kindness of others in making up for our deficiencies or coming to our aid in times of need—which, humbly speaking, we do all experience.
How do we cultivate humility? It was pretty easy growing up with parents, siblings, teachers, coaches and sometimes preachers to remind us of our deficiencies. I may have been an academic superstar in elementary school, but I got C’s in penmanship, and I discovered my limited ability to visualize in three dimensions in courses like solid geometry, engineering drawing, and third semester calculus. I was pretty sure that I was rhythmically challenged when I struggled to learn to type, a deficiency confirmed by flunking my rhythm test in freshman PE in college. But once we have gone through the discovery process of figuring out what our gifts and talents are and which ones we lack, and been through an employment experience or two that helped us to define what we were and were not, we are left on our own to practice and cultivate humility.
An inventory might help. Start with a list of things you do well, and those that you don’t do well but admire in those who can. I am good at leadership, writing, and teaching. I am not good at most sports, or art, although it helps me to reinforce humility by participating in both. I am an adequate singer and cook, and a struggling gardener with much to learn. I have lots of outlets for lessons in humility. It is too easy to spend all my time doing things I am at least pretty good at, and avoiding those I am not. Sometimes that’s a good thing. When I was musing one day about how I could help as a volunteer at our nursing home across the street, I thoughts I might be able to help in the dining room. My friend Cynthia, who knew the limits of my patience, said”Do the old folks a favor. Don’t help in the dining room. Find something else. She was right. I now happily engage in fund-raising efforts for the volunteers to provide additional experiences and services for the residents. Other times I resist that challenge to my self esteem. On one of those occasion I complained to my daughter Carla, who offered two great words of advice:”Stretch, Mom!”
I treasure the story my late friend Bob, who was a very talented bridge player but musically challenged, told about his attempts to stretch. He had good rhythm, lousy pitch.I have the opposite challenge. As an adequate but not particularly talented member of two church choirs, I managed to do not too much damage to the alto line One day Bob decided to join a local band in a nearby town and learn to play the trumpet. He was awful. He gave it a good try and then returned, duly humbled, to his quest to become a bridge life master. It was good for his balanced sense of self to affirm what he was good at while struggling to master something he wasn’t. I take my New Year’s challenge of learning to draw as a memorial to Bob. I am certain it will offer a lesson in humility.