I have been thinking about humility after reading a brief article on the subject by Tim Keller (“The Advent of Humility,” in Christianity Today, December 2008).  Keller said the following:

“Humility is so shy.  If you begin talking about it, it leaves.  To even ask the question, ‘Am I humble?’ is to not be so.  Examining your own heart, even for pride, often leads to being proud about your diligence and circumspection.”

Keller’s comment reminds me of Benjamin Franklin’s attempt to cultivate virtues.  He had success with some of those on his list but found it particularly hard to acquire humility.  As he ruefully remarked in his Autobiography:

“In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”

Keller and Franklin both imply that it’s virtually impossible to deliberately acquire humility.  Perhaps that’s true; I do know that I haven’t acquired it.  Francis of Assisi was by all accounts a humble man, so it is interesting to look at how he avoided pride.  Here’s how St. Bonaventure described his approach (in The Life of St. Francis, tr. Ewert Cousins):

St. Francis of Assisi in his Tomb, by Francisco de Zurbaran

“He preferred to hear himself blamed rather than praised, knowing that blame would lead him to amend his life, while praise would drive him to a fall.  And so when people extolled the merits of his holiness, he commanded one of the friars to the opposite and to impress upon his ears insulting words.”

I suspect that I would need to have been humble to begin with for this strategy to work, since, were I to arrange to receive such insults, I would probably be pleased with myself over having gone to such lengths to defeat pride.

Keller may have it right: as soon as we think about whether we are humble or not, we’ve already succumbed to pride.   C.S. Lewis said that, if we were to meet a humble man, “He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”  That may be true, but it brings us no closer to humility, because we can’t stop thinking about ourselves.  At least I can’t.  I’m always thinking about what I’ve done or said, evaluating whether I handled a situation effectively.   Such self-evaluation seems to me a good thing:  it helps me not be rude, insensitive, or offensive.  Whenever I decide I’ve been effectual, though, I’m inclined to feel proud.  I’m not content with simply recognizing that I succeeded at something; I also decide that I’m a pretty great person for having done so well.

So I’m proud, but I’m probably not as proud as I once was.  Though I still think a lot about myself, at least some of the time I’m remembering that ultimately I’m not responsible for my successes.  If I’m capable in some area, there are so many factors outside myself—genes, parenting, the influences of others, God’s grace—that fostered the qualities I possess.  It has gradually dawned on me that I don’t really deserve the credit for anything I accomplish.  I sometimes still take the credit anyway, but not nearly as much as I used to.

I’ve also noticed that the thought of my eventual death tends to puncture my pride.  The Rule of St. Benedict (4:47) counsels each of us to “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.”  We are indeed dust, and to dust we’ll return.  The words “humility” and “humus” come from the same root; literally, when our bodies decompose, we’ll have reached a humble state.  In thinking about my future, it is obvious that my abilities will diminish, perhaps to the point that I can’t even care for myself any longer.  Then I’ll be gone and someone else will take my place.  Eventually, I’ll be forgotten.  So what reason is there for pride?  My ego halfheartedly tries to commend me for honestly facing my body’s eventual decay, but even it doesn’t puff up very much when standing in the shadow of death.  If I follow St. Benedict’s practice, there is some possibility that my soul will become humble before my body does.  Per Keller, Franklin, and Lewis, though, humility is such a delicate flower that grasping it will always crush it.