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If I encounter someone with expertise, or skill, I admire it.
I notice, though, that when the skill in question is one I aspire to, the presence of the ‘exemplar’ feels intimidating. I am called into comparison by my own yearning…to speak fluent French, to play the cello, to be a successful author/speaker (whatever ‘success’ means).
I need to watch out for this form of ‘skill shaming’ I do to myself. I should be able to honor those ‘higher’ than myself without putting myself down in the process.
Next to the word “humble” in the dictionary, you will not see my picture. I do, however, have a sense of what it means for me, in particular. That sense has developed in part by contrasting ‘humility’ with this sort of ‘shame’ that is more dis-ordering than rightly-ordering, as true humility must be.
So, from my experience and not from the dictionary, Humble:
- To be hidden, invisible, detached from credit.
- To acknowledge the superiority of others and honor it without grudging or self-comparison.
- To be teachable and willing to be influenced by others.
- To put others before myself without developing a ridiculous “I am but a worm” posture.
- To support and promote the work of others and, if called to collaborate, to do so with right good will and excellent hard work.
- To do what I am not good at because of its intrinsic goodness, or just to practice being a beginner. (Hail Technology, thou humbler of the proud!)
- To make no demand for results, but to act in freedom according to my own best judgement (letting the work take place in me even when it does not seem to accomplish things ‘out there’).
- To trust God with all things that involve time: the timing of personal interactions, the time I have to use as a resource, the time that is beyond time and yet can permeate through the craziest-busy day, and the time in which my words may be read and find fulfillment according to the perfect timing of someone else’s life.
- To accept all impedance of my forward motion as from the hand of God, even when it seems to be the slow old farmer on the tractor in front of me, or the publisher who never responds, or the graphics guy who is working on my manuscript.
- To give from my weakness and imperfection and not just to give from my strength.
- To have a sense of solidarity with those I serve, employee, work for, or am served by: to tell their story and not just my own, and to care about what is important to them, not just my own projects.
Humus All Around Me
The best moment in the development of my personal ‘humility definition’ was when I realized the connection between humility and the humus, or soil-filled-with-the-detritus-of-life lying all around me on the ground. What an epiphany to see that whatever ‘fruits’ I produce from my vast store of creativity, it all will ultimately just become humus!
Some people are natural “amplifiers” and others are natural “balancers”.
The amplifiers tend to agree, nod encouragingly, and add to your thoughts with material that proves or corroborates your assertions, or opinions. Balancers listen with a different attitude. You’re making one case, so they’re helping by voicing the opposite case, or an alternative narrative. Amplifiers are most comfortable in a conversation with depth of agreement, and balancers in one with breadth of perspective.
It’s good to understand this dynamic, and to be aware of your own conversational bent. Without that awareness, you may fall into thee traps these personal styles present.
The amplifier may feel offended by what seems to be the contrariness of the balancer. The balancer may feel threatened by the pressure toward group-think in a conversation dominated by amplifiers. Both styles, pushed out of balance, move toward the silencing of other persons.
An amplifier can be just a ‘yes man,’ or drown out the wisdom and contributions of others. The balancer may think he’s being helpful, while his constant contradiction flattens and quashes the enthusiasm of others. In unity, respect, integration and love, though, these two can turn a conversation into an enjoyable and edifying event.
Scripture tells us to “cast down vain imaginations,” so let’s get to it.
“Vain” isn’t just about vanity, though spending lots of time imagining your own beauty surely calls for some “casting down.” “Vain” is also “to no avail,” or “purposeless,” and those imaginations are, I think, the ones most important to dispense with.
Cast Out the Clutter
Your imagination is a tremendously important asset, whose order and spaciousness and ‘tone’ contribute to your effectiveness. Cluttered with vain imaginations, that zone of formation is compromised considerably. Just as you de-clutter by asking each item what it’s there for, how useful or important it is, where it actually belongs, and how it justifies the space it takes up, inquire of your imaginations as to their purpose.
Discard imaginary virtue and heroics. They too easily distract from the development of real capacity to act virtuously. Needing lots of imaginary heroic action points to a sense of life-impotence, or perhaps fears that need to be faced. Discover what the payoff is for you. Meet the need through prayer and Sacrament and growing up, and discard the useless daydreams of Giving Selflessly and Saving the Day.
Discard imaginary projection into the distant future. It’s helpful to be able to extend a bit into the real and near future imaginally. How else would we plan Thanksgiving dinner, get the remodeling done, arrange the logistics of a vacation, or practice the words we’ll say in freedom next time we face the same challenge? What is not helpful is to go farther and farther out into the possible results of today’s actions, the possible assaults to tomorrow’s freedom, the (vain) attempt to control factors of future reality that do not yet exist.
I know for a fact that imagining the time after I’ve forgiven someone a) delays my forgiveness and (when I go too far and picture a glowing new relationship with lots more self-giving and vulnerability) b)presents post-forgiveness hurdles I simply am not prepared to jump in this moment. Whoa, girl! Get back to the reality you face now, and simply respond to it. Do not move ahead imaginatively into “ungracious time” (my poetic way of saying there is no grace in imaginations, so the whole exercise is vain anyway as it discounts the most enormous factor of reality).
Discard scenarios and strategies. Granted the need to think about the problems you face and the ones you expect to face in the near, real future. Your imaginations become vain when they become attempts to generate a playbook for every possible move someone else makes. Those others? They have become characters in your drama and you are responding to their virtual reality, not the whole, mysterious, radiant, image-of-God-bearing reality of their real presence. You? If you find yourself on the imagined stage of your own dramas, get out now! This is a dangerous place to be! The more you rely on media (books, TV, movies, music) to ‘carry’ your Self into imagined action, the easier prey you are to vain imaginations, and vice versa.
Imagined Scary Scenes
Discard imagined fear, and fearful scenarios. The need to dwell on fearful scenes is some self-defense against real and fearsome possibilities. The problem is that, as you generate the imagination, you also trigger your body’s response and flood yourself with hormonal ‘fear practice’! Instead of getting ready to meet something scary, you are compromising your capacity to meet what actually does come up in reality! Maybe, too, your rehearsals become self-fulfilling prophecies your imagination speaks into being first within you and then in your real experience. Of course I am not saying that bad things happen because people imagined they would, but it is absolutely the case that what people spend time imagining is more likely to become realized than what they haven’t thought up yet.
Discard replays as quickly as possible. It’s important to evaluate the results of your action. How can you learn from success or failure without a mental ‘debrief’ in which you go back over what worked, what didn’t , where the pivotal choice points occurred and why, etc…? Once those imaginations have served real purpose by giving you insight into your own behavior patterns, relationship dynamics, better ‘best practices,’ specific weaknesses that need to be addressed, and the like, let them go. They only serve to titillate your emotions, lock you into the past, cause new fears, or occupy you in imagined virtue and self-defensive strategy.
It’s Up to You!
Ultimately, you’ve got to do your own de-cluttering. One man’s Rube Goldberg machine is another’s cutting edge invention; one’s drama is an escape from life while another’s is an award-winning new novel. Just as there is no objective basis for saying whether to hold on to Great Grandpa’s Boy Scout badges, there is none for deciding about the clutter in your mental attic. But do attend to it, before that space has no room left in it for all the non-vain imaginings of which you are capable!