Hi Donagh, Just a quick question. I am in early recovery from Alcoholism and I am doing my best to follow the AA 12 step program. Central to the 12 steps are Humility. I would dearly like to work on this area of my personality and its faults. I sometimes feign humility to get my own way with people or to win brownie points with God. Can you help me distinguish between true Christian humility and my real fear of becoming a doormat for other people? Thanks. Gerry
Dear Gerry, My warmest congratulations that you made it to recovery! I've met many AA members and I have always admired their honesty and courage, and the way they support one another. The 12-Step programme has more genuine spirituality in it than a library of pious books. Stay with it and it will bring you all the way.
An addiction of any kind usually takes care of humility all by itself; but you are right: there are different kinds of humility – or rather there are many attitudes that dress up in the appearances of humility. Humility is full of contradictions and paradoxes, because the moment you think you have it, you have thereby lost it. An author was asked to name the best book on humility, and he replied, “Actually it’s a little one I wrote myself.”
Someone put it well as follows: if you have five gifts and you think you have six, that’s not humility; if you have five gifts and you say you have only four, that's not humility; if you have five gifts and you say you have five and you thank only yourself for them, that’s not humility. But if you have five gifts and you say you have five and you thank God for them, that's humility. The point of it is that humility is just the truth. When the ego is involved, humility is impossible, because the ego always has an agenda of its own. But when the ego isn’t involved, there’s just the plain truth, and therefore there’s humility.
It’s dangerous to work on one’s humility! A cultivated humility is the opposite of humility. If you hear or read of a ‘saint’ who had to struggle to be humble you can be quite sure that he or she was neither humble nor a saint. It stands to reason. If a man tells you he is “struggling” to make himself believe that 2 + 2 = 4, you can be quite sure that you are talking to someone who knows nothing about arithmetic. Humility is truth, and you either see the truth or you don't. If you are only struggling to see it, you don't see it. The remedy is to say what you see. If you see that you are a vain man, say it: “I am a vain man.” Tell everyone! That’s the truth, and to say it is to be humble. The truth is always the humble truth. That's how simple it is. No, we don't need to work on our humility. We need to work on finding the truth and being faithful to it. The truth will set us free.
One morning about 850 years ago St Bernard was speaking to his monks after some crisis had shaken their confidence. He said to them, “We can breathe again, my brothers, for even if we are nothing in our own hearts, perhaps there is another opinion of us hidden in the heart of God…. Before God we may be nothing, but within God we are something.” Wonderful clarity! Apart from God we are nothing, but in God we are God’s beloved sons and daughters. If we were something apart from God we would be something like…doormats. We would have to have a menial attitude to God and try to win brownie points. What a wonderful freedom to be nothing apart from God! Our dignity doesn’t come from anything we can carve out for ourselves apart from God. We exist within God, whether we are great sinners or saints, or something in between. That is our truth, our dignity, and it doesn’t depend on us. It is ours no matter what we do; it can never be taken away from us. We are nothing in ourselves but we are simultaneously God's treasure. In a word: the truth is both worse and better than we think!
This may sound very theoretical, but it has a practical bearing on your question: your fear of becoming a doormat. To be “nothing in our own hearts,” as St Bernard put it, seems even worse than being a doormat! But think of the wonderful freedom is gives! It is freedom from the enslavement of ego-thinking. When we use this freedom we never again have to pretend to be anything. And all the while we know that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters. It is this confidence that enables us to be what we are and to make no anxious claims to be anything. If you are afraid of being a doormat it’s because you are thinking like a doormat. Only you can make yourself a doormat; nobody else can. If you know your own dignity you are not a doormat, even if other people were to behave rudely towards you or attempt to use you. Such people are assailing their own dignity, not yours. Your dignity is unassailable.
When the truth of this strikes into your heart you will not have to concoct a good opinion of yourself, nor go begging to others for it. You will not be deeply affected by praise or blame, you will not have to cultivate any ‘attitudes’ – especially not false humility – you will be able to act directly and simply in everything, because you will know at one and the same time your own greatness and your nothingness, and for the first time there will be no conflict between these; they will be unshakable truths; they will be the north and south poles of your existence.
Congratulations again, Gerry, on your recovery. May it be forever – one day at a time!