Saturday, September 26, 2009

Humility on the Path to True Love

“Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.”

—Daniel Berrigan

I won’t say anything about humility much better than Daniel Berrigan, but I have been thinking about humility for a while now — and why it’s so hard to practice.

Fighting for what we need is human instinct. An infant won’t be fed or changed or picked up unless he fusses and frets and demands attention.

“Look at me! I’m important! I need something from you!”

When children begin to realize that they are separate from their parents, they also develop a self-centered view. They strive every day to control and conquer.

A friend of mine illustrated this beautifully when she said that her toddler likes to climb on top of things, but he doesn’t know how to get down. So he screams in frustration until mom or dad helps him.

Skills like patience and empathy aren’t natural. We think of ourselves first, then we might consider the needs of others. Independence and individualism are celebrated. We clap when baby takes her first steps away from us, when she feeds herself and — halleluia — when she can climb in and buckle her own seatbelt.

Soon she’s stepping on the school bus, going to sleepovers and making decisions about her friends, behavior and morals. If those decisions aren’t consciously grounded in values like empathy, honesty, patience and kindness, the child will default to reactive choices that are best for her in the moment.

“That toy is mine! I need it more than you do! You don’t matter to me!”

We become little kings and queens protecting our domain and using others to go where we want to go, get what we can get and be who we want to be. And society tells us for the most part that it’s okay to strive and achieve and be somebody.

Still, when we hear stories of people who risk or deny their own lives to save or help others, something moves within us. We feel inspired. We feel hopeful.

In fact, ordinary people are serving each other every day. When they get their kids ready for school, when they show up for their jobs, when they run errands for the family or help in their communities and churches, they are providing a service and keeping society afloat.

The question we must ask ourselves then is this: Are we simply giving in order to get? What’s our motivation?

If I go to work, I’ll get paid. If I help in the community or my church, I’ll look good, get a better opportunity or earn favors from others. If I run this errand, then no one will bother me the rest of the day. If I do this for my spouse, he better give me something in return. If the kids have what they need, they better show some appreciation.

If the self is always our motivation, then we will never be satisfied. At some point, people will disappoint us, abandon us or reject us.

When disappointment comes, we can climb on a counter and scream at the top of our lungs. We can build a wall to prevent further disappointment. Or we can shrug it off and focus on the next opportunity to please ourselves.

OR…we can shift our motivation.

If pride is love of self, humility is not its opposite — sacrifice of self — at least not in the way we think. “Look at me. I’m such a loser. I’m less than dirt. Here, you have the last piece of pie. It’s okay. Don’t worry about me. (heavy sigh).”

In fact, we are greater than we know. But we will never reach our full potential and see the miracles and abundance of life until we place the needs and wellbeing of others ahead of our own — in all things and in all circumstances.

What good is my reputation, achievements or stuff if I’m empty inside, alone? To find my life, I must lose it. I must give all, risk all, lay all the cards down with no expectation of a positive result or gain for me.

When humility is a way of life, people will still disappoint, abandon and reject us. But we will no longer react to their pain with a punch, a scream or escape. We will show up with true love.