The Thing About Humility
A loaded word reveals what people think about themselves.
"Humility" is a word that lacks a clear definition. So like an abstruse, religious dictum from thousands of years ago, its application reveals the subconscious preference of the user. This makes "humility," not a conceptual tool used to understand reality (a word), rather a concrete tool used to distort reality (a weapon).
So let’s look at what different types of people mean when they admonish us to have humility, or to be humble. This way we'll know what they're trying to say about themselves.
A word that would later become “humility” was introduced to Western civilization, not by the Christian, but by his intellectual ancestor, the Stoic. This Hellenistic philosopher lowered himself in the face of his God, a pantheistic symbol of the natural world. If something happened and you didn’t like it, then too bad—it was God, after all, who made it happen. You better accept this by lowering yourself in his omnipresence, and omnipotence. Who are you to protest the divine workings of the universe?
The Christian adopted this meaning through Augustine to denote the lowering of yourself in the face of what we now think of as God.
The variation of the word, therefore, may differ depending on each Christian’s conception of what God is. As a rule, though, the more he wishes to lower himself in the eyes of a God placed high above him, the more trauma he’s trying to dissociate from.
The implication is clear, as revealed most strikingly in the Book of Job—man is but an insignificant speck, so to think of himself as any sort of causal agent on this world is to blaspheme the infinite. Not exactly the kind of message you'd preach to someone who you wanted to be smart and happy, a true Western man.
We’d think that someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum, and who is often an atheist, wouldn’t be drawn to “humility” like the Christian is. But the socialist probably uses that word even more. Even the apologists for socialism use that word to rationalize why material goods and services, the quality of which invariably lapse under even a modicum of socialism, aren't that important. To the socialist, this is a necessary sacrifice for the sake of his higher value, equality. The socialist may not use the word “humility,” exactly, but they will admonish people for bringing up “first-world problems,” which is essentially the same thing.
Though economic distribution decreases as a society becomes more socialist, so we're left to wonder whether the true intentions of the socialist aren't all that different from the Christian's.
The millennial is under-educated and over-socialized. He has neither the epistemology nor the temperament to stand on his own against the crowd. Therefore, if he were to be disagreeable, it would only be for the purpose of being mean, which is a cardinal sin for the millennial.
As such, whenever someone says something—no matter how true it may be—that is less than socially appropriate, the millennial cannot defend what this person says on intellectual grounds so he admonishes the maverick to be more humble.
The 20-something’s use of this concept transpired when Kanye went off the reservation, or plantation as the case may be, last month. Twitter accounts with “graphic designer” in the description told Kanye to be humble more times than the Church Lady made hilarious jokes.
In this way, humility serves as a defense against anxiety for the millennial. It rationalizes, on moral grounds, the millennial’s inability to stand on his own against the flock. There’s a lot of ways we can keep from growing, and one of the most creative ways we do this, on both sides of our fabricated cultural schism, is through the preaching of humility.
Addict in recovery
When we see people who go for years subsisting on not much more than heroin and diet coke, we think they’re consciously making a bad decision. They know what they’re doing is wrong, we imagine, yet they still do it. This is because we project our mind into their situation and say, “that’s an extreme case of self-indulgence, like that one time I started my own podcast.”
But what most of us misunderstand about addiction, as well as other mental disorders—because we don’t have them—is when people are in the thick of them, they think what they’re doing is correct. Junkies truly believe, given their emotional turmoil, often projected out as social turmoil, that shooting up on the side of the street is pretty clever.
The addict in his recovery, therefore, uses “humility” as a way to understand he may not be in touch with reality, or know what’s best for him, simply because it’s what he thinks is best. This is why he refers to himself as being “in recovery.” He’s not lowering himself as much as recognizing the precarious nature of seeing reality for what it is. He, better than anyone else, understands that when left alone with his mind, he may not be capable of being in touch with reality all the time.
As we learn the subtext of humility, we can see the intention of the word is to explain away the deficiencies of the speaker. Therefore, whenever someone uses that word from now on, let’s better understand what he means by mentally appending to each admonishment with the phrase, “... because I’m lame.”
When a Christian preaches, “We must be humble in the face of God,” we now know what he thinks of his place in the structure of reality.
When the socialist rejoinders, “Who are you to complain, there are starving people in Africa!” remember he only wants to justify to himself his own inability to make sense of the world.
When a millennial types a buzzfeed pastiche about how we need to be careful about what we say because our words can hurt somebody, you now know how to edit it to better understand what this asexual 27-year-old thinks of himself.
It’s fitting, I suppose, that only a pathological psyche could use a pathological word in a healthy manner—as a synonym for honesty. Honesty with yourself, about both your faults and your values, about what it takes to be ever more in touch with reality.
It's a Herculean task, which will require we drop all pretentions of humility to do it.