Humble Pie (September 2001)

September 2001

Humble Pie ©

I once sat in a job interview facing someone who asked me how I would deal with a hypothetical confrontation at work. As part of my answer, I made a vague reference to the fact that I would approach the situation “with a certain sense of humility”.

Obviously disturbed by this, he abruptly interrupted by stating categorically: “In business, you must never be humble.”

Ironically, I knew that this man was a Christian, and that he would even be familiar with the biblical verse: Those who humble themselves will be exulted. In fact, he had once studied to become a priest.

Rather than being aggressive, he was offering friendly advice, born from observation, experience and the mainstream of business praxis. Seen from his perspective, humility is the door to defeat. A humble person, according to this view, is unfit for the politics of market life.

This commonly expressed point-of-view poses a perplexing challenge to those of us who struggle to make the Wisdom imbedded in Scripture a working reality for daily living. If Jesus’ teachings mean anything, they must withstand the test of having practical value in the daily lives of those who attend church in good faith and then go out to make a living in a world that measures winning by the degree to which others have been defeated.

Perform your tasks with humility
– Sirach 3: 17

Because it is derived from the Latin word humilis meaning ground, the word humility is generally regarded as connoting lowliness, whereas I think it more profitable to think of humility in terms of being grounded or even rooted.

We all know what happens to a church steeple struck by lightening if it is not grounded or a tree struck by a violent wind if it is not well rooted. Both are destroyed. It is precisely from the unassuming earth that both draw their strength.

To be humble is nothing more than to see oneself frankly and objectively. Humility does not call for self-deprecation. It celebrates both strengths and weaknesses.

From this perspective, weaknesses are in fact strengths because they enable us to grow. Where do the vain find the impetus to learn from others if they regard these as intellectually inferior? How can others bolster the proud if they cannot confess their own limitations?

The Catholic canon contains a book variously known as Sirach or Ecclesiastes, which is not found in Protestant editions of the Old Testament. I think this is unfortunate because, aside from the relative merits of historical arguments, it has great value as part of the Wisdom collection of Ancient Scripture.

In it, we find these words: When calamity befalls the proud, there is no healing, for an evil plant has taken root in them. Further it is written: The mind of the intelligent appreciates proverbs, and an attentive ear is the desire of the wise.

Sometimes, it takes calamity to learn humility. Sometimes the only way to get to taste humble pie is to fall into it face firsts.

God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.
– Psalm 68

Because humility is a form of spiritual poverty, it produces fruit most abundantly when it is voluntary: hence the critical distinction that must be made with humiliation. Consistent with the long-standing tradition of spiritual poverty, it eschews all attitudes and behaviours that isolate us from the beatific benefits of community – of Spirit-filled relationship with God and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

For this reason, authentic humility – as distinct from counterfeit humility, which is a camouflaged form of vanity – allows us to experience God as Love. Similarly, humility is the necessary precondition to love between persons, spousal or fraternal.

French novelist Marcel Aymé went so far as to regard humility as the essential condition for spiritual development: “L’humilité est l’antichambre de toutes les perfections.” In fact, a compatriot, Alphonse de Chateaubriant, celebrated the link between spirituality and humility by attributing this same quality to the very source of all perfection: “Sois semblable à Dieu est le commandement de l’humilité”.

Literature is sometimes unkind to humility. Humble pie is not presented as something normally featured on a gourmet menu. Yet it is nutritious, and delectable to discerning connoisseurs. Bonus: it is also non-fattening!

Indeed, humble pie is both savoury and sweet. While it is bitter nourishment to the vain when masterfully laid plans go awry, it is delicious to those who find in it the joy of learning and growing through wholesome relationships, not of co-dependency or exploitation, but of inter-dependency.

That was my point about approaching confrontation with humility.

Francis of Assisi wrote a number of admonitions to promote a lifestyle that is coherent with our Christian faith. Among them is one that presents humility as useful in preventing anger and the vile consequences of anger.

This should not be surprising since anger is often an instinctive response to a perceived threat. It is the distorted face of fear. Fear is commonplace in business because of the ever-present threat of loss.

Fear, in turn, wells up from insecurities while genuine humility finds its home in the security that springs from a deep-seated sense of hope and trust.

No matter how uncommon authentic humility may be, it is the compelling call of those who have faith in things that endure and love that, as the apostle Paul points out, transcends envy and bitterness.

Humility is not just a virtue espoused by Judeo-Christian tradition. In the 5th Century BC, the Greek dramatist Euripides wrote: “Humility, a sense of reverence before the sons of heaven – of all the prizes that a mortal man might win, these, I say are wisest; these are best.” How tempting it is to transform that quotation by substituting Son of God for sons of heaven!

Lao Tsu, the founder of Taoism, also appreciated the wisdom of humility a century earlier, several miles away. He understood that the counterintuitive fact that, for the truly wise, in weakness there is strength: “Humility serves to act with force”.

On the other hand, vanity is blind force. It has neither the eyes to truly see the subject or object of its action. It sees only its self-created illusions.

Lord, give us humility in which alone is rest, and deliver is from pride which is the heaviest of burdens.
– Thomas Merton

Fortunately, humility is on the radar screen for at least some business observers, not only from the perspective of ethics, but more pragmatically, from the point of view of performance – efficiency and efficacy.

Combine the words “humility” and “business” on an Internet search using Yahoo’s service and you will find no fewer than 32,500 web pages listed.

One intriguing reference is to an article written by Tom Peters, a respected anatomist of corporate success, entitled: “Humility and Business: Never the Twain Shall Meet”. The article points to an increasingly important issue in business, namely the peril of overestimating our ability to influence outcomes.

To illustrate, Peters writes: “Systematically review a stack of annual reports. Without fail, a good year is explained as the fruit of management’s action, while a bad year is invariably the result of any number of external factors.”

Another fascinating find is an article in the Washington Business Journal that bears the revealing headline: “Blue Chip Humility & Courage”. It praises successful entrepreneurs who manage to confess and put their strengths and weaknesses into proper perspective.

Humility must become more than a spiritual virtue; it must be seen as a social value and a pragmatic tool in the workplace.

In his first letter, the apostle Peter reminds us that it is something that characterizes how we work and relate to one another: All of you must put on the apron of humility, to serve one another.

It is ultimately the most effective way of relating to others because it provides the freedom to be who we are meant to be, so that others can be set free from the illusion of control.

It is a sign of full maturity both emotionally and spiritually. In the helplessness that it confesses resides the power that it professes in Christ…the icon of humility.

This is perhaps best illustrated by a simple Asian proverb: “The taller the bamboo grows, the lower it bends.”


Christian Humility

The key to Christian humility is joyful freedom. But freedom from what? In our Western cultural situation a number of issues cross the terrain in a way that is thoroughly confusing to any traditional understanding of this virtue.

A distinctly Christian response is required today. What our new situation calls for is patient attention to personal growth by putting together all the graced skills of a well-balanced humility. A first skill will be anti-bourgeois: liberation from acquisitive addictions by learning how to adopt a simple lifestyle amid the nigh-consumption society.

A second skill would counter the puritan overstress on competitiveness: liberation from any judgement of worth in terms of what one can or cannot do.

Thirdly, the skill of opening ourselves truthfully to other members of a community will help free is from the relentless pressures of modern technology.

Finally, we may often need to practise the skill of surrendering to joyful feelings. This means taking the time “to smell the flowers”.

– The Real Presence of The Future Kingdom
John Wickham, S.J.