(This is the first post in a new, weekly series about virtues and vices.)
I remember the moment very vividly, even though it’s been almost ten years now.
It was a Saturday in mid-January and the car was stopped at the light by the intersection of Pawling and Spring. We were driving to the mall, but my thoughts were centered on a particular problem—a situation where I was completely undecided what to do. The situation escapes me now; all I can remember is that, whatever it was, I couldn’t stop fretting about it.
My companion, my boyfriend at the time, was immune to my nervousness and took the opportunity to share with me his personal philosophy, what I later came to realize was the guiding principle that governed his entire life.
“If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.”
At first, you might think that’s a great philosophy to live by. Get out there, make things happen, create your own destiny, live your life the way you want to live it! One might recall the famous words of Frank Sinatra: “I did it my way.”
Yet, something about his slogan was jarring and met my ears with a certain discordance, though at the time I couldn’t put my finger on it. What I learned through the course of our relationship was that he did indeed do things his way, but frequently, that way tended not to be the virtuous way.
You see, in living by the slogan, “If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me,” he had made himself, well…a god. He was his own ultimate authority, the determiner of his moral code of “right” and “wrong,” the director of his fate.
What he lacked was what many writers call the “mother of all virtues.” Some go as far as to say that, without this, virtue can’t exist at all.
What he lacked was humility.
Humility comes from the word humus, which means “earth” or “ground.” In other words, a humble person isn’t one who has his or her head in the clouds; instead, he or she is “grounded” in an accurate understanding of self. And what is this accurate understanding of who we are? Go back to the very beginning: we are made in the image and likeness of God. Note: “likeness” does not mean “equal.”
An accurate understanding of self acknowledges that we are only creatures, not the Creator. Humility, however, doesn’t mean self-deprecation. Humility is all about truth. Let’s say you approach a man who is six foot, eight inches and say, “Wow! You’re so tall!” It isn’t humility to reply, “Oh, no…I’m really not.” Such a reply may well be false humility. A person who is humble graciously receives compliments, recognizing the truth in them, but at the same time, he or she but doesn’t solicit praise.
Humility is so critical because, without it, we lack the truth to see our personal faults and shortcomings, which is a necessary prerequisite for advancing in virtue. You can’t fix something if you don’t even realize it is broken. Also, without humility, it’s quite hard to defer oneself out of love to another’s need, to stoop down to help another.
Here’s a little antidote: our daughter, Mary, came running into the room the other day repeating, “Uh-oh! Uh-oh!” While we were unaware, she had slipped into my husband’s office and grabbed his cell phone, which he had left precariously just within her reach.
Now, I’m sure her fifteen-month-old self didn't think: “I’m a good girl. I deserve to use this cell phone, just like anyone else. I can play with it, if I want to!” Her reaction was quite the opposite. Instead, she immediately realized that her father, who knows best for her, lovingly made the cell phone off-limits for now. She promptly humbled herself to his direction, willingly handing over her prize.
We are all children in the hands of a loving Father. He knows best for our lives and wants to lead us to happiness and joy. But, like a little child, are we humble enough to freely submit to His great plans? Or do we obstinately assert our own will, confident that we know what is best, despite the fact that we are far from being all knowing, all powerful, or all good?
We are like glasses, full of water. If we want to receive the best of wines, we must empty our glass first. If we don’t, there will be no room for the wine. And if we empty our glass only partially, we will be left with diluted wine. Humility is the virtue that allows us to fully empty our hearts of self, so God can fill them with the riches of His grace.
He who exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself shall be exalted. In the words of St. John the Baptist, “He must increase; I must decrease.”
I’ll always remember those words spoken to me some years ago: “If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.” But, since that time, I have formulated another philosophy in reply, one that acknowledges the truth that I am just a servant to my King and, if I humbly serve Him in this life, I have the hope that I may reign with Him in the next. So, I say:
“Lord, if it’s meant to be, it’s up to Thee.”
(Source: Homily from Rev. Franklin McAfee, Aug. 31, 2008--for this homily and many more fantastic homilies, check out this site)