Be Proud of Your Humility

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. 

Two Mountains and a Valley

In David Brooks book, The Second Mountain, he describes a life in adulthood as lived in two stages. The first is success–career, prosperity, and the acquisition of status symbols. Perhaps with a valley in between, in later life one is called to embark on a second mountain–that of commitment, including marriage, other relationships, religious commitment, and community. The book is rich in insight, but it did not speak to how I, or many others (especially women) lead our lives. Success and commitment are not sequential. They are simultaneous, and the challenge is balance.

As I was reflecting on Brooks’ book, I had a learning experience. I was at the beach with a friend and she wanted to try her hand (and mine) at an adult tricycle. Despite more physical handicaps, she conquered it fairly quickly. I did not. It was a humbling experience. Part of my challenge was the difficulty of adjusting the height of the seat, but the larger challenge was unlearning the habits I had developed in may years of riding a ten-speed, which now had me going around in circles.

I started thinking about kinesthetic learning, which is learning by doing. In my particular case, my lifeong kinesthetic learning challenge has been learning with the body. I was gifted as a visual and auditory learner, but challenged by learning with the body. I struggled to learn to dance, to swim, to participate in sports., to type (poor sense of rhythm). I also have some specific issues in visual learning, especially visualizing in three dimensions, which makes it difficult for me to draw. But that’s another story.

So I learned to live in my head as the path to success, and it worked. But it also made me feel smug about my superiority, while failing to come to grips with my unwillingness to learn things that were difficult. It also made me tune out what my body was saying to me about what it needed. It needed movement. It needed better nutrition. It needed attention.

Two lessons from music and one from tutoring helped me to gain some perspective on my body learning challenge. First, I sang in church choirs for about 30 years. Good pitch, but rhythmically challenged. It got better with practice, but never up to the level of most of my fellow choir members. One day I read an article about how developmentally challenged people can learn anything that others can learn: it just takes them longer. It gave me hope as a “retarded musician.” (Retarded was the word back in the 1980s.) So I persisted, and actually was a fairly decent singer, although never a soloist.

One of my fellow choir members was a long time excellent bridge player and a person with good rhythm but lousy pitch. Ours was a tolerant choir, and his erratic notes were forgiven. He decided he wanted to play an instrument and joined a local band, where he discovered he was a truly awful trumpet player. However, I admired his effort to learn something difficult instead of sticking at what he did very well, playing duplicate bridge. He made it through one season and returned, chastened, to bridge.

Last spring I tutored a sixth grader in language arts. She was doing well in math and science but struggling with language. She turned out to be a kinesthetic learner, and after studying up I found a few tricks to help make her learning easier. But it made me more understanding of the students I had taught in my career as an economic professor who struggled with the standard visual/auditory teaching and learning style just as I struggled with body learning.

Over the years I have made progress. For 23 years I have been a Jazzercizer, which has greatly improved my rhythm and my enjoyment of physical activity. Over the same time I also continued bike riding and added walking and hiking, which was the easiest form of exercise. With better rhythm I learned to enjoy kayaking. But most important, accepting the challenge of body learning taught me humility. I am good at some things, and not others. If I stick to doing just what I do easily and well, I feel good about myself but impatient or critical of those less gifted in that way of learning, doing, and being..

The Greek philosopher Socrates was married to Xantippe, who had a reputation as a shrew. Why did he put up with her? This was his explanation. “None of your soft-mouthed, docile animals for me,” he says; “the horse for me to own must show some spirit. If I can manage such an animal, it will be easy enough to deal with every other horse besides. And that is just my case. I wish to deal with human beings, to associate with man in general; hence my choice of wife. I know full well, if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else.”

Okay, not a lot of humility there, but definitely wisdom. It is fine to enjoy the things you do well and the people you are comfortable with, but the growing edge, the spiritual challenge, is to connect with people you don’t particularly enjoy and learn things that are difficult.

Once I can master the adult tricycle, art lessons are my next body challenge. What’s yours?