On an Amish farm north of Toronto, I recently had a vision in which I saw our best hope for the healing of the world. It happened on Alva Stoll’s farmyard and focused on the face of his four-year-old granddaughter. More exactly, it was her regard for me and her quiet witness at the scene of our gathering that took me in and gave me hope. Her vision was both attractive and unsettling, since it communicated clearly and with profound simplicity how worthy and beautiful life is, and how difficult the path would be leading us from our current waywardness to our true happiness and good.
Alva and his nephew Paul had welcomed a group of us to their farm and agreed to answer our questions about Amish life, how and why they live the way they do. Not long into our discussion, Alva’s granddaughter joined the group. She stayed in our company for thirty minutes or more, holding her Opa’s hand and smiling at us the whole time. There was nothing dramatic about her appearance with us. She displayed simply the quiet, yet powerful testimony of a child perfectly content to be with her grandfather, on her farm, happy to contribute to her family’s welcome of us. The calm and serenity of her presence made it plain there was no place she would rather be.
My thirteen-year-old daughter was with me on this occasion, and I asked her if there was anything unusual about this child. She noted how other children likely would have found this adult scene, maybe even the farm itself, utterly boring, and so would have acted out in some way, clamoring for attention or diversion. Clearly she had escaped the soul damage wrought by our entertainment and marketing industries! We also remarked how attention and patience disorders of all kinds have infiltrated child and adult worlds alike. More and more, we seem unable to rest quietly and non-contentiously in the summer shade or in the embrace of a loving family member. Such tranquility, we seem to think, lacks drama and is altogether too ordinary.
The memory of this girl has stayed with me, mostly because she embodied (at that moment at least) something about our common humanity that is being forgotten and is virtually lost. She demonstrated that human life is at its proper best when it is humble. Humility is a form of life that acknowledges and honors our rootedness in place and community. It connotes a way or manner of being that tries to be faithful to and responsible for, rather than aggressively exceed or overreach, a person’s life-giving contexts. It comes to fruition as we learn to receive, enjoy, and cherish each other and the world as gifts. In the presence of this little girl, I came to understand how so many of our social and environmental problems stem from human arrogance and our inability (sometimes outright refusal) to live sympathetically and harmoniously wherever we are. I also saw that if our communities and habitats are to have a future worth protecting, then we had better learn to adopt the ways of humility.
I have no doubt that the attentive and patient ways modeled by her Amish elders had a lot to contribute to this girl’s humble sensibility, as did the care and kindness they showed to their animals and each other. A grandma pulled a younger girl around the yard on a wagon much of the time we were there, thus allowing her to sense her place in the community and on the land. Equally important is the experience of childhood itself, experience that at its best is immersed in play and discovery. To experience the world and our place in it with childlike wonder and trust leads to humility, because it is in the context of the world’s grandeur that we begin to see the true silliness of our often pretentious ways. When we live a humble life, we help create a world in which respect, restraint, care, peace, and celebration can flourish.
I am sure Alva’s granddaughter is not perfect, and that she has her share of trouble. Nor do I wish to romanticize her Amish community as the unending and thorough display of humility. What I want to emphasize is that her community, the way it lives and thinks, makes possible and more likely (in a way that our society clearly does not) the humble disposition so clearly in evidence in this young girl. We need to remember that even as the Amish work through problems of their own, they at least are not directly responsible for the litany of woes we now face: degraded soils, contaminated water, anxious livestock, nuclear waste, bio-pollution, super pests, antibiotic-resistant pathogens, melting ice caps and glaciers, communal disintegration, massive personal and national debt, the sense that war is inevitable and even normal—all indicators that we have not yet learned to live humbly with each other on our lands.
Our adult world, the world governed by ever-expanding markets and violent aggression, cares nothing for this childish humility. It has been pushed aside and relegated to the margins, much like Amish culture. Humility has been dismissed as a “monkish virtue” that is both foolish and dangerous, because it impedes progress and casts a depressing shadow over human greatness. It even has been characterized as a vice and blemish that leaches on the strength, daring, ingenuity, and dignity that elevate us as a species. Admonitions to humility are the most miserable sign of self-imposed decadence, and therefore humility ought to be rejected as a character trait. Humility strenuously pursued, on this view, eventually will lead to self-hatred.
The trouble with this criticism is that it bears no relation to the farm scene I have been describing. Alva’s granddaughter, as well as her family members that I met, showed no signs of self-hatred, depression, or decadence. Indeed, the beauty and order of their farm, as well as its rich productivity and health, suggested the opposite—a sustained affirmation, even celebration, of the community and place in which they lived. Rather than being a drain or damper on life, the humility in evidence on this farm showed how it is possible to work and play in ways that ennoble and honor it.
In making a case for humility, we are not helped by the fact that it is extremely difficult to speak honestly or rigorously about it. Quite rightly, we are suspicious of those who talk about humility too much, for what could be more ridiculous than to argue for one’s own humility? Moreover, shows of humility are often false or deceptive as people only feign meekness to secure some personal advantage. False posturing and insincere flattery, while suggesting the recognition of one’s “humble” rank, actually turns into mockery as we play the insecurity of others to a self-serving end. Whatever advantage we achieve in this manner turns out to be a sham, since it is generated through the debasement and corruption of each other.
The medieval monk Bernard of Clairvaux, in a spiritual guidebook called On the Steps of Humility and Pride, said humility is “the virtue by which a man recognizes his own unworthiness because he really knows himself.” Iris Murdoch, the late British philosopher and novelist, described humility as a “selfless respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues. ”Both of these definitions suggest that an inflated ego is one of the prime obstacles to an honest assessment of our condition and place in the world. To live truly and faithfully with each other requires that we first get this ego out of the way. And so Murdoch continues, “The humble man, because he sees himself as nothing, can see other things as they are.”
Many of us bristle at the thought that we are “nothing” or “unworthy.” This is the kind of talk that leads to poor self-esteem as well as a low self-image. But before we dismiss these ideas out of hand, we first should consider what they mean and why they were defended by people who clearly were intelligent (and fairly well adjusted). We also need to be attentive to how these definitions can be abused and misrepresented, because we know how these admonitions to humility have been used in the past to keep individuals and groups—most notably women and slaves—down.
When considering humility, context is literally everything. Bernard’s articulation of the issue was firmly rooted in his understanding of persons as creatures made by God.
His immediate concern was how we, whether monastic or not, can live honestly with each other and in ways that promote peace and neighborliness (his treatise is peppered throughout with calls for us to become merciful and gentle). Why is this a main concern?
Bernard is convinced that it is possible, even likely, for us to forget who we are. When he, and other spiritual writers like him, suggest that we are unworthy and nothing, he is pointing us to an unarguable fact: that we did not bring ourselves into being and so must depend on others (human and non-human) for nearly every aspect of our living. This is what it means to be a creature. Whatever life we enjoy is finally a gift given by a creator God. As creatures, our most important task is gratefully to receive and share the gifts of life, nutrition, photosynthesis, friendship—all graciously given, and to a large extent beyond our comprehension and control. In our conversation on the farm, Paul made it abundantly clear: the work he and his family does is inspired by and in response to God’s prior generosity and care for them.
Depending on one’s frame of mind, this can be a hard truth to accept. We like to think we are self-reliant, dependent on few others, the captains and purchasers of our own fate. Indeed, many of us have difficulty accepting the generosity of others. We feel humiliated acknowledging that we need another’s help. But when we forget that we are creatures, and start to think we can live “on our own terms” and experience the world “on demand,” then it is likely that discord and aggression will reign in our communities as people jockey for position and power and that destruction will mark our places as we consume the world to death. In our forgetting of who we are, we lose the basis and starting point for a life of care and peace namely that we all depend on each other for the requirements of life and so must work to strengthen and celebrate the bonds that nurture and sustain us.
Humility is central for Bernard, because it reflects an understanding of how we are so richly benefited by the unfathomable generosity—what spiritual writers term “grace”— of our creator. Why is God so generous and hospitable to us (but not only us)? We don’t rightly know, other than to say that the bounty, beauty, and diversity of creation, its preciousness, reflects a God who surely loves creation and takes delight in its well-being.
If creation is the concrete, physical manifestation of a creator’s love, then we plainly can see how damaging any form of hatred is. The self-loathing often associated with humility, and the idea that humility renders us utterly worthless, is entirely out of place, since it represents a denial of what God already has proclaimed worthy of love and care. If God loves creation, thinks it worthy of being made, who are we to say that any member of it is deserving of our contempt or abuse?
In the smiling face of Alva’s granddaughter, the sense of the goodness of creation, the sense that she is lovingly well-provided for, was unmistakable. The manner in which she carried herself communicated supreme trust in the world. Her countenance showed no fear or suspicion, but rather delight and contentment. The thought that if she is to live well she must take the world by cunning and force, or that to be worthy she must first become a celebrity, had not yet entered her mind.
Bernard was clearly aware that fear and distrust can quickly overwhelm our living. After all, it is a terrifying thing to come to terms with the fact that at the core of our being we finally must trust in the kindness of others, or live the faith that God will provide. We cannot live humbly and well alone. We need the encouragement of each other to sustain us in the ways of fidelity and hope. When worry and faithlessness do take over, however, our inclination is to deny that we are creatures made to live in interdependent wholeness, and so we try to secure as much for ourselves as possible. We then become sinful and proud, defensive and arrogant, envious and anxious, claiming more than we properly should. And so creation and communities, rather than being at peace, unravel and begin to fall apart through mutual contention.
It is remarkable how ecological Bernard’s understanding of humility is. His appreciation for creation as an interdependent whole lines up fairly precisely with the scientific understanding that by ourselves we are quite literally nothing. The peculiarly modern invention of persons as self-standing, disembodied egos is, in fact, a dangerous delusion. Insofar as we breathe and eat, it is only because of vast webs of energy that intersect through us and everything else. To live responsibly in a place, most obviously through our bodies but also intentionally with our minds, we must honor and nurture our life-giving communities. One of the clearest signs that we have entered a path of humility is that we pause to enumerate with some regularity all the gifts that feed into and form our being, and then express genuine gratitude. It is hardly surprising, then, that Sabbath worship and celebration serves as the high point of an Amish week.
If we fail at this humble task of thanksgiving and instead choose paths of self-glorification, communal disintegration will be the result. What Bernard could not have known is how in a technological age, combined with immense mechanical power, the orders of creation that hold all life together would come apart. He likely would consider our blasted mountains, degraded coral reefs, depleted oceans, vanishing forests, disintegrating families, anxious and stress-ridden workforce, and urban and rural slums as the clearest signs that in our culture sin has taken a firm hold.
When we understand that in terms of ourselves we really are nothing, the possibility emerges, says Murdoch, that we will “see other things as they are.” This point’s significance cannot be overestimated, particularly since we now live in a world that has been profaned on multiple levels. By its profanation I mean that reality—forests, farms, wetlands, neighborhoods, whole towns—now signifies an idolatrous reflection of our own ambition. The world exists to serve us rather than, as Bernard would have said, to praise God. The value of things is increasingly measured by their utility or economic benefit. The sense that our natural world is holy or an iconic realm of deep mystery and sanctity pointing beyond itself to something higher is mostly gone.
How did we come to this conclusion? Clearly, this is a very complex matter, but Murdoch gives us a context with some clues. “We are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy.” Murdoch is suggesting that at root our problem is that we do not care to live ordinary lives. We prefer the excitement and possible grandeur of fancy. Our yearning for another life, a “better,” more luxurious, comfortable, and safe world, would not be so great a problem if it did not have such destructive effects.
The humble person confronts this yearning head-on by encouraging us to start our thinking and evaluation where we in fact are, here and now. A moment’s self-reflection ought to reveal to us how frequently we start somewhere else, a place that is definitely not ordinary but glamorous and dramatic. Rather than beginning with an honest assessment of who and where we are, and thus learning to work within our limits and potential, we despise ourselves and our homes. No doubt various forms of media and marketing have a lot to do with this, since they encourage us to treat the present with contempt and as beneath what we deserve.
Such contempt, besides being immensely destructive, is finally a lie. Everything we need to live well is here, provided we take the time to nurture and care for it. Our longing to be somewhere else, and the thought it will be better there, is a fanciful delusion because it does not appreciate the silliness of its starting premise: if the place where I am is irredeemably boring and ordinary, then finally every place by my being in it must finally appear as similarly boring and ordinary. Fanciful projection, besides inducing a never-ending state of homelessness, becomes a recipe for perpetual ingratitude and unceasing (often destructive) competition and consumption.
To be caught in a fanciful world is to see reality as we want to see it, not as it in fact is. When we become arrogant, we go one step further and believe that reality should become as we want it. As we all know, there can be considerable distance between these two worlds, the world of our dreams and the world of contingent creation. As our history so plainly shows, the preferred means for bridging the distance has been to unleash a stream of force and violence upon places and communities.
The violence cannot end until we rightfully take our place as creatures, not as lords over creation but as responsible members within it. To accomplish this aim, we will need to get our ambition, but also our fear and anxiety, out of the line of sight. We must, again, become nothing so that others and we ourselves can appear in all their freshness and wonder, all their costly grace. In this respect, we must become again as little children who have not yet learned to see reality primarily in terms of an agenda. Only then will magnificent and at times incomprehensible beauty shine through.
There is a paradox at the heart of humility: to achieve the fullest, most honest, affirmation of life, we must first practice the discipline of self-denial. Failing such self-restraint and self-control, the wonder of the world—its graced character—simply will pass us by. The capacity to be at peace in our communities and places will evaporate.
Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, perceptively has noted, “The hardest thing in the world is to be where we are.” We want to be the center of the world, rather than take our humble and peaceful place within it. Failing that, we yearn for another world, all the while destroying the one we currently occupy. For many, perhaps most, of us, Williams’s observation is undoubtedly true. But not, I suspect, for the Amish girl I met in Ontario. Will she continue to be a witness to the serenity and contentment of humility as she becomes an adult? I can hardly know for certain. But I do think she is better positioned than many of us, because she lives within a culture that takes humility seriously as the acknowledgement that everything we have and are is finally a gift that must be treated with respect and received in gratitude.
Norman Wirzba teaches Philosophy and Theology at Georgetown College in Kentucky. He is the author of The Paradise of God and Living the Sabbath.