I would be humble, for I know my weakness

If you are anything like me then the concept of humility, the quality of being humble, has forever been made unctuous by one of my favorite authors, Charles Dickens. He achieved this less than stellar feat through the creation of his miscreant character Uriah Heep. In the book and in the many portrayals on film of the Dickens’ classic, David Copperfield, this most loathsome villain feigned humility, while all the while conniving to destroy his gracious employer, Mr. Wickfield, both financially and personally.

Heep’s actions were discovered to be all the more venal as the plot literally thickened (and sickened) through the revelation of his plan to marry Wickfield’s beautiful, pure, devoted and courageous daughter Agnes. Fortunately Dickens’ own sensibilities would not allow this to happen even in a fictional world and Uriah got his comeuppance in the end to the delight and satisfaction of us all. Still, I cannot help but envision a “humble” person as someone who presses their sweaty palms together and contorts their body when speaking like a snake in hot ashes.

If Dickens is not to your taste in wholesome entertainment, then you might still subscribe to the idea that we as a people also confuse humility with humiliation. None of us want to feel the shame of being called out by some pretentious person of self-anointed superiority. So we carefully construct our own persona of thick skinned, tough minded arrogance to prove ourselves invulnerable to the visceral destructive power of humiliation. In fact we are likely to take it to a different level entirely and regard a self-effacing person with contempt. Everyone knows that nice guys finish last and that tough guys don’t self-efface. They don’t eat quiche either, supposedly.

We are now seven weeks into a series of messages based on a poem written in the early 1900s by Howard Arnold Walter. He was a graduate of Princeton University with a divinity degree. His career goal was to be a missionary, but his poem was written while serving as a teacher in a university in Japan. His creation was a Christmas gift for his mother and reads like a son’s vow to live by the virtues learned at home and enhanced by his university education.

I am blatantly making use of his private communications with his mother (you can blame her for outing him by having the poem published) as the means to adhere to my self-inflicted discipline of writing and posting a weekly message. The poem’s twelve lines, each advocating a different character trait, have provided me with a readymade series of subjects on which to pontificate. Humility, or the quality of being humble, is part of this sequence, along which path we have already considered the value of being true, pure, strong, brave, friendly and giving.

Walter’s motive for being humble is unique. It is not based on the external benefit of helping others, like the previous virtues in his list, but on an internal awareness of a singular weakness. His discretion, perhaps, prevented him from naming that weakness or it could be that a more distinctive revelation did not fit into the rhythm of his poetic form. Its appeal to the reader’s imagination, in this case mine, for solving the mystery of the anonymous weakness is that Walter is quite intentional in stating that his need for humility is defined by a single negative trait. And the trait he had in mind was most likely the opposite of humility, which is pride.

It goes before a fall; another cliché we often employ in our explanations of life. It retains this easy reference status because we know it to be true. Our pride leads to our downfall, if only in the form of embarrassment incurred when we obstinately hold to an opinion or task, when the evidence indicates we should yield our grasp on our private reality and accept an alternate course in our thinking. The difficulty is that we hate to be proven wrong, so pride of place wins out and we willingly accept a lesser benefit as long as it is of our own making.

In my professional career I learned to endure a number of proud, influential people. My preference, though, was to work with those who listened before they talked, encouraged ideas to be shared that were not their own, and found a way to graciously defer to others in light of a more compelling idea and line of action. In other words I preferred working with humble people. The results were often favorable and when you are sitting in the executive director’s chair, favorable results are desirable. They tend to put money in the bank, burnish your image as a leader, and create goodwill among those who shared in an organization’s success. In other words, everyone is happy except for the Uriah Heeps of the world.

I agree with Walter that the goal of being humble is desirable. My aversion to the image of Dickens’ vile villain causes me to applaud this particular character trait by other names; modest, unpretentious, respectful and unassuming. I also accept that humility has little value in a world that praises celebrity. But for those who disdain the spotlight and want to pursue the less notorious road of promoting the common good with little personal glory or fanfare, being humble is the gold standard of a well-lived life.

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