Dear Donagh..., I was interested in your answer to Gerry the month before last.... My question is about having TOO much humility. I know it myself, and people have often said to me that I have a very low self-image. It’s not that I don’t recognise my gifts. I'm not like the man you mentioned who had five gifts and said he had only four. But my feeling is “so what?” I see other people getting great mileage out of their gifts, and it kind of embarrasses me to see pushy people. I know there’s a problem in there somewhere, but on the other hand aren’t we meant to be humble? Doesn’t the gospel talk about taking the lowest place? I can't square these two things. Can you say something about that? John M.
Dear John, I think there isn’t much difference between a low self-image and a high one. Both are self-images; high and low are just the colouring. In both, there’s a preoccupation with the self. Christian humility has nothing to do with having a low self-image; it’s about throwing oneself into something bigger than oneself.
Our gifts are not for ourselves alone, like badges of honour. They are for the community: in other words, they are for oneself and others equally. “To each [person] is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” St Paul wrote (1 Cor 12:7); and it was on this principle that he arranged gifts in order of importance (1 Cor 14). Our gifts are not personal decorations. This thought is a great help in undermining the ego. The language of Christian spirituality hasn’t always done this. St Teresa of Ávila (and many after her) liked to refer to “favoured souls.” This carries a high risk of misunderstanding. Gabriel addressed Mary as “favoured one” (Luke 1:28), but she saw herself as “the servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). Lesser souls are in danger of taking favour as an ego-trip.
Your gifts do matter. You may not be excited about them yourself, but that is the best state of mind. We should forget our gifts, in the way that golfers have to forget their swing. Any self-conscious thing we do has too much self in it, usually. It’s not about you. The best piece of advice I got, once upon a time, was just that: “It’s not about you.” Other people depend on you, whether you have a high or a low opinion of your gifts. The best of all would be to let your gifts pour out spontaneously.
“I see other people getting great mileage out of their gifts,” you said, “and it kind of embarrasses me to see pushy people.” It embarrasses most of us, especially if they are pushing in the opposite direction. Pushy virtues are not always the most effective. In a competitive world, yes, but not in deeper matters. Our world celebrates – even glorifies – competition and success. The Christian view is counter-cultural. It would not be true to say that it glorifies failure – that would be a kind of masochism – but it sees it as being frequently the door to infinite possibilities of grace. It would be logical for the last to be last, but the Gospel says that the last have a better chance than the first. It’s about seeds falling into the ground and dying so that new life might abound. Your gifts – whether they are highly visible, or so subtle that they are almost invisible – are needed by the Christian community and by the world. This community and this world include you, so you are not being exploited when you pour out your gifts. And of course you benefit equally from other people’s gifts. You are part of the great mingling that is the Body of Christ.
To finish I want to say a word about unspectacular gifts. These are often far deeper than spectacular ones. St Thérèse of Lisieux (whose feast was the 1st of this month, and who is quoted in this month’s ‘Wisdom Line’) delighted in the fact that she was unnoticed and even disregarded in her community. Her instinct told her that this was the way into depth – as it is for seeds that are planted. Jesus used images of seeds, of yeast, of salt. All of these are things that disappear. In your practice of the Christian life you can allow your low self-image to turn into something wonderful that has neither self nor image in it. It can be a shorter process than for someone who has a high self-image. May it happen for you, John, by God's grace.