Humility

August 8, 2018

Small silhouette of a man gazing at a sunsetI have said many times and will not tire from saying, pride is the worst of human failings, the most destructive, the deadliest thing. And when it is at its subtlest, it is at its deadliest.

The political philosopher, Karl Marx, said that greed is at the heart of human history. He was close, it is actually pride, as Augustine said.  When Augustine said that history was the record of two groups (cities), he said one was ruled by pride and the other by love (and humility). He said the Romans made their great empire by means of their chief drive, their libido dominandi, their desire to conquer and rule, just another way to say pride. Marx seems to suggest that rather than the desire to dominate, most people are dominated by their libido concupiscentia, their desire to feel pleasure.

There are some overlaps between Augustine and Marx – both seemed to be clearly aware that people had at their bases some really depraved drives. But Marx seemed to miss that primarily what moves us is our egos, not our stomachs, at least for history’s great villains is this the case. These ‘great’ leaders, like Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon, Caesar, etc., in fact, knew how to use other people’s physical (concupiscible) desires to service their personal quests for greatness. Once a man has his baser desires met – food, sex, rest – he moves on to other ones, the deadlier ones.

Pride is the best-looking vice. That is its power. To Christians, lust is ugly, so too are gluttony and drunkenness. So many of us think that, once we have the most outlandish instances of lust under wraps we are basically all set in the eyes of God. Nothing inhibits the moral progress of Catholics more than this error.

So many things that people do are not about food, clothing and shelter; they about things that we don’t really need to be into, but which we do because they are about one thing above all: servicing our egos. How many of our economic choices, how much of our free time, the conversations and the friendships we have, the ‘causes’ we believe in, are about making ourselves look good or feel good? Why do mothers of young children work? Because they have to or because it makes them appear a certain way in the eyes of others, or makes them feel valuable? How many men work longer and harder in jobs they perhaps don’t even like or need so that they can appear successful and wealthy? Do you watch news to appear knowledgeable, read certain books to appear educated? Do you say you enjoy certain foods, movies, or events because that is what you think others want you to enjoy? Do you volunteer so that others will think well or you, or even because you want to think well of yourself? If you are unsure about how much you are guilty of the vice of pride, just spend some time with children, or the mentally ill or handicapped – those who are utterly incapable of guile. Perhaps only then will you be able to see how much you have bought into the pride game.

Much of our pride might lead only to what we might call ‘harmless’ self-indulgences, like going to the salon or buying expensive clothing – no one is really harmed by that, right? But where do you draw the line? Very few people ever say, I have enough or I have too much and then do something about it. No, we hear all about being good to yourself and deserving all of this because of your hard work. I don’t want to speak too long about how any kind of pride is a dangerous thing—it is absolutely—but I don’t want to dwell on it. Little pride sets the stage for big pride, maybe not yours, but your little pride justifies others’ bigger, more dangerous, more misanthropic pride. The pride of the little Greek city states set the stage for the bigger more destructive pride of Alexander the Great. Your pride in your minor accomplishments sets the stage for another’s greater accomplishments. If it wasn’t for pride we would be able to see our neighbour as another self, and treat him accordingly.

Once you have realized how much time you spend trying to please man rather than God (cf. Acts 5:29), you can either deal with this is a positive, life-giving way, or in ridiculous, profitless ways. Even good people who want to do God’s will do some silly things ostensibly for humility. One avenue re-born Catholics sometimes go down is one that sees them stop bathing, using deodorant, and similar things, believing that in so doing they are getting away from thinking about the opinions of others. Their intention is pure, probably, but that doesn’t mean that they have not missed something here. Yes, hygiene is culturally relative, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In North America we should follow the basics of hygiene expected of people here. In India, we can change it up for what they happen to do there. I remember hearing about a group of seminarians I knew going to India for a few weeks. While there, one of them insisting on carrying out his usual hygienic practices, which included showering daily. Now, in a country where people regularly die of starvation and suffer from a lack of clean drinking water this is a little out of place. In North America, it is almost expected. Almost expected. A good Catholic can err on the side of moderation: water, especially hot water, still costs money, money that can be shared with others who have very little.

But such out-of-the-ordinary practices might not get to the heart of the problem of pride. Doing extraordinary things might be a good start, but they don’t necessarily take one into deep self-reflection, the only thing that can really expose and uproot this deep deceiver. Extraordinary things for Christ, like cutting off all of your hair, are easy and, thus, superficial, solutions. They can be good and necessary for some, but they cannot replace the necessity of plunging more deeply into oneself. The things that you more readily do for sake of humility will not be sufficient to drive out pride. When you do outlandish things, you might be doing nothing less than exchanging one kind of pride for another. Real humility can only be found in things that no other person will be quite able to pin down. It lies only in those things about which no one can say, “He is doing this for sake of humility.”

Humility is that correct attitude a man has about himself, first, with respect to God, and secondly, with respect to his neighbour. It is a plain matter of fact that man is nothing without God and that he received everything he has from Him. It is a plain matter of fact that I was made out of the same mud out of which God made my neighbour. (Gn 2:7) Some of us rise above others in certain regards: some of us become wealthier because of hard work, others from luck, others from the hard work or luck of others (inheritance); some of us become more virtuous, because we work at it, depriving ourselves of things that are not good for us, and by doing things that are hard but good; other become famous for no good reason, or from a combination of good reasons and bad reasons. Yet there is a great difference between being ‘higher than others’ for sake of wealth or fame, on the one hand, and because of virtue, on the other.

One of the big differences between wealth and fame, on the one hand, and virtue, on the other, is that I can know who’s wealthier and more famous than me; as to who is more virtuous, I can only guess, and chances are that if I am engaged in this guessing game of who’s more virtuous, it means that I have moral problems. I don’t know if I am more virtuous than someone who has an abortion, uses contraception, is violent, etc., because I don’t know the states of mind of people who do these things; nor do I even know my own state of mind with any great precision. Nor do I know the helps I receive from God that they have not. Remember, there but by the grace of God go I. Now, I can guess, and sometime I have to: like when I need to decide who my children should and should not be spending time with. This is a sticky one, but the simple fact is, such judgements are made out of an awareness of how sinful and easily tempted we all are. No, my kid is not better than yours, but I know that my kid around your kid would not be good for my kid.

It may sound like I really don’t need to point this out, but I think I do: don’t treat people differently because of their wealth or fame, but only because of their virtue, but be very careful about this latter part. (Jas 2:1-7) The fact is, poor people are more annoying than people of your own wealth bracket. Come to grips with that. People who fall outside of the subculture in which you were raised will seem strange and even unpleasant to you. Do not equate the familiar with the good. Frankly, inelegant diction is not immoral, although it seems grating at times. Even Christians can fall prey to the trick whereby the familiar becomes the moral for us. I even find very wealthy people annoying. I judge them as quickly as I do the poor. In each case I am wrong to do so. The sins of people who are different from me are far more obvious to me than those of the people who are more like me; I have become accustomed to their kinds of sin.

Humility brings freedom. And freedom can be used for the good of the world. Humility is already the good in which we stand in need, and if we pursue it and attain it, we can do real good in the world. People are used to being categorized and kept at arm’s length by others in certain regards. Teenagers are watched with suspicion by clerks, old people by the young, the black by the white, the Jew by the Muslim, the fat by the thin, etc. I am not saying that there is never a need for fear and caution. What I am saying is to see things more like God does. It is not whether the person is young, black, or fat; it is whether or not they are good people, whether or not they are people of whom God is very proud. Do not let superfluities stand between people. If we do, we continue to relegate the important things to a lesser spot. I find that today, despite all the effort government has put into treating everyone fairly before the law, we are more alienated from our neighbour now than we ever were. We are alienated from him because we were preoccupied with trivial things, like skin colour, when we should have been thinking about virtue. Now we excuse immorality based on skin colour, economic class, and type of sexual dysfunction.

We need to reward the virtuous, the selfless, the morally upstanding, the business man or politician of integrity, the hardworking mother, etc., and totally ignore other considerations. The first people that need to be ignored are celebrities, the second politicians, and only speak of politicians to praise hard work and integrity. The lying politician should be as a byword amongst the nations, never spoken of, one driven from the company of good people. (cf. Ez 14:8)

Humility is the freedom to go into public with no make-up, to say what one really feels, to reach out to an interesting person, to sing in a choir for the first time, to wear unfashionable clothing, to drive an old car, to have a pimple. It seems to me that humility is a gift of astounding proportion. But don’t be surprised that the old devil pride will keep revisiting you, presenting himself in different forms all the time. He might say that with expensive suits you can reach more people for God. Same with a new car. Same with ‘elevator’ shoes. Same with saying the right thing, just this once… Recall the freedom you used to have, the freedom to be a fool for Christ. Don’t give that up for small gains and empty promises.


Colin Kerr and daughterColin Kerr

Colin wrote this Article for the Knights of the Holy Eucharist. He has been married to Anne-Marie since 1999, and they are proud to raise their six children, in a small town in Ontario, Canada. Colin has a PhD in Theology and works tirelessly to promote the Gospel. “Just share the Word,” is what he believes the Lord says to him – and so he does. He recently founded The Catholic Review of Books, a printed journal and website dedicated to “all things books” from the perspectives of faithful Catholics. He is fascinated by the concept of chivalry as it applies to being a man and a father in today’s crazy world.

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