Humility can be elusive. There’s a fine line, I’ve been told, between being humble and being a doormat. I have heard people say that humility is important to get you through the door, but once you’re inside you have to grab what you want. When looking for jobs, we struggle to balance being a strong self-advocate and demonstrating humility to future employers. It seems that we can agree humility is desirable, just not always how much, when, and towards whom. Through some of the social justice work I have been lucky enough to do with my students this year, I am learning that being humble is directly tied to respecting the equal dignity of all people. That means it is to be practiced completely, all the time, towards everyone.
Part of my job is to help students create projects to address social justice concerns in our community. Many of these projects stem from what students see as a religious or spiritual imperative to serve the community, and students will come in with significantly different views of what that means or how it takes shape. I am sometimes amazed at how readily they seem to grasp the big picture, but how difficult it can be to narrow in on their own little corner of the city. This difficulty focusing our perspective is a struggle many of us share.
Earlier this spring, I took ten undergraduate students to Philadelphia for a week of interfaith social justice work focused on homelessness and hunger. One aim of the trip was to generate energy and creativity around putting together a structured program of service here in Baltimore to work with the population suffering from these same issues. Another was to take students just far enough out of their day to day lives that the individuals they encountered stood out and no longer blended into the background, or remained on the page in the form of statistics.
Over the course of our week together, humility came up time and time again. There is a difference, students quickly noticed, between the idea of going out to help people and going out to serve people. While both might provide additional food and resources for people in need, one comes with an attitude of condescension and pity, while the other approaches those in need with humility and empathy. We strive to serve, we aim to work alongside those in need, and we are grateful for the opportunity – for many of us, it is our responsibility.
The practice of serving with humility is wrapped up in the imperative to treat others with equal dignity. For me as a humanist, although this is not unique to humanism by any means, this means recognizing the unity and equality of our mutual humanness. Many of us are willing to go so far as to say that one’s poverty or situation does not detract from one’s inherent dignity, but when we say that negative outward factors such as homelessness, addiction, mental illness, etc., do not detract from one’s dignity, we must also affirm that positive outward factors such as success, wealth, and education do not add to or improve our own. When it comes to inherent dignity, it shouldn’t matter whether or not I know someone else’s whole story – either a human is a human, or some of us are more human than others. I reject the latter, so I must embrace the former.
Direct, humbling encounters make this lesson easier to learn, of course. Students experienced this first hand when having breakfast with residents at a men’s homeless shelter one early morning in Philadelphia. Students were thunderstruck by the intelligence and thoughtfulness of some of the men they had met. “It’s not that we assumed they would be ignorant,” one student said. “I just didn’t expect to meet someone who could be my professor.”
For many of us, myself included, humility can be even more difficult when we are on the receiving end of care and assistance. Later that same day, my students met a man who had lived on the streets of Philadelphia for 25 years. He had been the youngest of 13 children, kept out of school, and left home before he was 15. He had never learned how to read or write, which made finding work difficult. He said humility was as important as water. He told us pride was the greatest danger of living on the streets. “Once pride sets in, you’re done,” he said. He told us how he would reject the food offered to him at Christmastime every year by do-gooders who would come through his cardboard village. “I am out here every day,” he would tell them. “Why do you think I only need food on Christmas?” He was only able to survive, he told us, because he had found a way to preserve his own dignity while also accepting the help of others.
Students came away from our conversation visibly affected by his story, and spent a long time discussing the importance of integrating service to others in how we conduct ourselves on a daily basis. We talked about the ways in which humility is directly tied to dignity and equality, and how we often misunderstand and misrepresent humility by thinking that being humble means you can’t also take joy in your accomplishments, have faith in yourself, or insist on being treated with respect. Humility only requires that you also take joy in the accomplishments of others, have faith in others, and insist on treating them with respect, too.
Humility is difficult. There’s a fine line, and it’s drawn around dignity and respect. I’m working on it, and I hope that’s a good start.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.