Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Trying to Wrap My Brain Around Humility

I recently read a blog post (dated March 13, 2012) by Abbot Tryphon of All-Merciful Saviour Orthodox Christian Monastery on Vashon Island, Washington. In this post, Abbot Tryphon talked about self-esteem, and how, in our culture, this term has really just become another word for self-importance. It also appears to have become the antithesis of humility.

I agree with Abbot Tryphon that there are times when self-esteem becomes confused with self-importance and pride. But I think that this is indicative of our culture's complete inability to comprehend the spiritual dimensions of concepts like humility and pride. It's tough to make the distinction when people simply don't think beyond immediate satisfaction, when people think that "feel good about yourself" just means "feel good right now". 

The problem with that is that feeling good about oneself - that is, feeling like we've done the right thing, like we can look ourselves in the mirror without loathing, without hiding - can take time. It takes dedication, courage, strength and sacrifice. It takes hard decisions, and difficult paths. I think it also takes spiritual grounding. True self-esteem is not the easy way out, and I think that's where we miss the boat, as a culture. 

The easy way out is to see self-esteem as being wrapped up in our image to others, which is really pride. So let's call it that. Our culture teaches us pride, not true self-esteem. And it does this by marketing products that will make us pretty/handsome and ageless, chemicals to make us smell good (i.e., not like a human, but rather like a flower or a spice mill or a chemical dump), drugs that will make us slim by 3:00 tomorrow, and endless amounts of stuff that will make us the envy of all those around us who don't have all that incredible, unnecessary stuff. 

Then, when we inevitably age and our bodies change and we smell like a human first thing in the morning, this image gets shattered and we want to repair everything, make it like new again. But that's okay. Just turn on all those electronic things and you'll get bombarded with more advertisements for products that will keep you from feeling like you're actually living. And if you act now, we'll throw in this other thing that will break in  3 days at no extra cost.

Part of the cycle is that the generations that follow us are learning these lessons, and they're learning that you are only okay if, between the ages of 14 and 40, you perpetually look like you're 20 years old. They learn that they are only okay if they are always winning, and do not know defeat. They learn that they are only okay if they are doing everything right. I think that our culture knows this on an unconscious level, so we try to promote self-esteem by ensuring that no one ever loses, no one ever knows painful defeat, and no one ever really has to struggle to win. It's the easy way out, and it just doesn't last.

Now, in some circles, people are actually talking about self-esteem in the sense of being able to wake up in the morning and still feel good about yourself, despite smelling like a human and having bedhead and being shaped differently than the model who looks like she hasn't yet hit puberty (or, for men, shaped differently than, say, Hercules). Some people are still touting self-esteem, though, by encouraging the purchase of stuff - the right yoga mat, the right exercise video, the right meditation CD, the right book to read. "This is the one! This is the one thing you've been missing that will give you self-esteem! BUY IT!!!"


And of course, if you're not getting all that you want and more, it means that you are not doing it right. It means that you aren't enlightened enough; it means that you haven't grasped the magic formula and said the right thing so that *poof* it will appear before you, as if summoned from beyond.

But wait, that's still more pride, isn't it? I have the right yoga mat, so I'm awesome. I bought that CD and I'm so much more enlightened now. I got the stuff, and the stuff makes me better than I was. So why are people still sad?

What people do miss is humility. We've been taught that humility is self-loathing, and that it will ruin us, and cause us to be abused. In our grab for power, recognition, and love, we cannot possibly risk losing it by appearing humble, by self-deprecation and loathing. Right?

If humility is not self-loathing, then what is it?

The day after seeing Abbot Tryphon's post, I also saw this video.

This, I thought, this holds one of the keys to understanding humility. At least, I think it might. I think one of the keys to grasping this elusive idea is to understand our place in the Universe. And to realize that we are all connected.

The Buddhists use a Sanskrit term - Pratītyasamutpāda - that means, in a literal sense, Dependent Co-origination. That's a really amazingly fancy way of saying interconnectness. We are all connected to one another.

Similarly, in the Orthodox Church, we cultivate humility by remembering that we are all connected to each other. Within the Church, we are connected by being in communion with one another. But even in the larger scheme of things, we are all connected by our humanity, and its need for Grace.

Who among us has not desired forgiveness from those we love? Who among us has not fallen short of expectations? Who among us has not fallen into despair, or soared in joyous abandon? Who among us has not felt the most basic emotions - fear, longing, rage, joy, and of course, love? We are bound by our common experiences of being human as we are by blood and erect bipedal locomotion.

And so I am connected to the homeless man, to the wealthy CEO, to the beautiful girl who fears she is ugly, to the man who resents his brother for being smart and funny, to all those who are struggling with fear, longing, rage, joy and love because I, too, struggle with these. I have made mistakes, and fallen short of Grace. I have run away from God and from the love He offered me in so many forms. How is it possible to try to be superior when I know that I have experienced all of this? Pride is the belief that we are separate from everyone else, and that we should be held above others because we are different from them. Humility (which comes from the term humilis (Latin) and is related to another Latin term, humus, which means "earth") is the recognition that every breathing, hoping, running, praying, playing, imagining, trembling, dancing, singing, innovating, crying, prostrating, laughing human is made of the same stardust as everyone else.

And not only that, but we are also connected to those stars out there. We are connected to the Universe in its entirety, to all of Creation, as we exchange atomic material with them each day.

I cannot say if this makes me feel small or big. It's neither. And it's both. Humility isn't about feeling superior or inferior. It's about knowing my place in the scheme of things. It's about understanding that someone else's crazy behavior is no more crazy than the environment that created it. It's about looking at ourselves and seeing not only the divine image of God, but also seeing the image of the lowliest among us.

What the Church has taught me is that the result of our humility, the natural outcome of realizing our interconnectedness, is Love. We can't truly love without it. And we cannot be in the presence of Divine Love without humility, without realizing that it extends out to all of us. Grace touches each of us, just as we are each made of the dust of distant stars. 


  1. Very well thought out and written Tanya!!! Very insightful. God is showing through what you say and do. :-) Thank you for sharing your wisdom. :-) Blessings of the Lord to you throughout this Lenten season... and beyond.

    1. Aw, thank you, Tim. I pray the Lord blesses you richly.

  2. Once upon a time we crossed paths, in precisely two comments on a blog post, here: http://www.examiner.com/article/wife-of-slain-moscow-priest-issues-statement

    I just re-discovered that post a moment ago, and immediately thought to myself, "Why did she surface and then disappear again? Is she still Orthodox? Is she still alive?"

    After a few minutes of Googling, I am pleased to see that the answer to at least two of my questions is Yes.

    Hi. :)

    I stumbled upon the comment tonight because I'm trying to write a post for the OCN blog in a couple days on the exact same subject I mention to you, about the connection between community and revelation.

    In short, you forced me to articulate something almost three years ago, and it's been bouncing around in my head ever since, just a few hours now from finally making its way out.

    Thank you. I appreciate that. :)

    1. Hi Jeffrey,

      I got to see the post, and it was wonderfully written, as well as touching. I'm happy to see that I was able to spark a thought process that yielded such fruit. :)

      How funny that we've interacted here and there. Not a coincidence I'm sure. And now I see that you're friends with people I know. Of course....

      I hope all is well in your world.