It was the year of humble pie. In 2004, both John Howard and George W. Bush were humbled by their election wins: Howard ‘truly humbled by this extraordinary expression of confidence in the leadership of this great nation’, and Bush ‘humbled by the trust and the confidence of my fellow citizens’. Or was it vice versa? Condi Rice found it humbling to succeed Colin Powell as the US Secretary of State. Catherine Zeta Jones was humbled by motherhood, Russell Crowe by fatherhood. One Academy Award humbled Tim Robbins, though it took eleven golden gongs to humble Lord of the Rings studio New Line Cinema.
So is humility the new proud?
While arrogance and self-loathing are flip sides of the same coin (both narcissistic, both suffocatingly self-conscious), humility is a whole different currency the state of knowing that, in the scheme of things, we’re not so very important. To be humble is to accept that we simply are, that we’re ever learning, that we’ll never know, and that the vast, impenetrable universe dwarfs our every action.
‘Few speak humbly of humility,’ warned seventeenth century brainiac Blaise Pascal. And the humble types I’ve listed have simply commandeered the word, vainly hoping that re-labelling their pride will make it palatable to a populace wary of hubris.
But it’s not Orwellian wordplay that concerns me; it’s the absence of real humility. These days, only world leaders and Oscar-winning slashies bother even pretending to be humble. The rest of us are raising our self-esteem. Talking ourselves up. Believing in ourselves, because we believe in nothing other than ourselves. Being proud of oneself was once one of the seven deadly sins. Now it’s part of the primary school curriculum. And of the virtues, humility is the most unfashionable.
Because being humble means being a bit of a loser. Let’s face it, Howard and Bush weren’t humbled Howard’s sitting pretty with his Senate majority, and Dubya is nursing an ego the size of the Florida panhandle. It was Mark Latham and John Kerry who were humbled in 2004.
Fancy swapping places with either of them right now?
After a long search at the patent office, I discovered that God invented humility. Christ came to earth in a humbled state the Son of God slumming it. The citizens of Babel sought to challenge God, so he confounded their tongues and bequeathed us the humiliation of trying to order restaurant food in France. Later, Babel became Babylon, upped its up-itselfness, and was duly obliterated.
See, that’s the problem. We need to humble ourselves before something, but, as a culture, we’ve lost our faith. G.K. Chesterton said that when man rejected God, we didn’t just let the vices loose in the world, we unleashed the virtues too. Without their holy anchor, they’ve wreaked havoc.
In this narcissistic age, we try to humble ourselves before others. People materially and culturally beneath us are best, particularly if we can make a documentary about them. Perhaps this is how humanism failed us. When we deify the deserving poor (as opposed to the you-deserve-it poor “ disenfranchised, foul-mouthed homeless people hassling for spare change in the mall and the like), we can miss the real humbling agent.
We don’t, for example, need too much humility to deal with victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. We need bravery, ingenuity, compassion and empathy. Volunteers. And heaps of dosh. We should save our humility for the wave. The wave humbled us “ that towering testimony to the precariousness of man and the unquestionable dominion of nature.
Of course, in tragedy, humility helps. Once you realise that you aren’t very important, you realise that other apparently unimportant people must be much like you.
Certainty and self-esteem, so lauded by business and politics and society, stunt us. It’s only when we stop knowing that we can start learning. Being humble is largely silent. Humility seeks to understand, and does not judge. It’s the basis of both charity and forgiveness. Humility finds it tricky to cast that first stone.
Which brings us back to God. Perhaps the hitch with humility is that we’ve got God all wrong. Personally, I don’t buy this prudish don who’s thin-lipped on the subject of lady vicars. If God exists, surely he exists in all things, from a trembling fern frond struggling to uncurl to the giant, flaming Alpha Centauri. Surely his is-ness transcends our puny consciousness. Man is ‘nothing compared to the infinite,’ said Pascal. ‘The end of things and their principles are unattainably hidden from him in impenetrable secrecy.’
Ah, the end of things. I hate to shock you, but you just got another year closer to it. So if faith fails you, try humbling yourself before the certainty of your demise. Because the earth will receive the tiny burden of our deaths as it did A.D. Hope’s bird: with neither grief nor malice. And we’ll all be pretty humble then. Even John Howard, even Dubya, and even those proud few with a golden knick-knack on the mantelpiece.
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