The Prompt: C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” How good are you of placing others before yourself?
I don’t think C.S. Lewis would want us to consider ourselves “good” at this – I suspect that defeats the purpose because we are fighting with our own nature to think about ourselves first – self preservation after all. So the humility gained by thinking less of self is lost by assessing our success in doing so.
But to get to the question, I am not very good at this. I have a degree, student loan bills and more than my fair share of program successes to show that I have been successful in working to help others. I’ve launched holiday projects, financial literacy programs, and more.
I’ve also given my dinner to someone on the street, shared the gloves on my hands, and bought coffee and blankets.
But there are two ways that thinking of oneself first undermines these acts.
First, we allow ourselves to feel satisfied that we’ve done our duty by our sisters and brothers. It’s what I used to call the Tiny Tim syndrome during holiday programming – people giving to feel good. Tiny Tim is a play on the often mistaken idea that Ebenezer Scrooge saved Tiny Tim. Wrong. Ebenezer saved himself by giving to Tim without expectation of anything in return.
Second, we allow ourselves to be consumed by guilt that we haven’t done enough. We take the act of giving and make it about our needs, our emotional satisfaction. And this is not supposed to be a transaction that revolves around us.
I tend to fall into the latter category – it isn’t enough, I’m falling back on my privilege, I should have done more, asked for more, etc. I put ME at the middle of the analysis and that is exactly the opposite of humility. Beating myself up is not that different from patting myself on the back for my act of charity. And neither does much to make the world a better place.
Now this quote comes from “Mere Christianity” and if I’m not mistaken, Lewis is emphasizing how we as human beings strive to live up to moral law while recognizing that we’ll never get there. But we can’t give up and can’t accept less than perfection. Much in the same way that Jesus called on us to love our neighbors as ourselves, Lewis is helping us understand that it is a journey, that we exist in the permanent struggle to love our neighbors and should not be distracted by our own self.
That’s not to say we must forego self-care. Quite the opposite, we must care for ourselves so we can continue to care for others. Finding the balance between our own needs and the needs of those around us, finding how to love our neighbor and still be present in this world – what a challenge.
I am not a humble person. I do not think C.S. Lewis would think much of me (and not just because I’m gay) and I’m not silly enough to utter things “I want to make the world a better place” or such bland impossible statements. I believe that there is a moral imperative (and an ethical one) to challenge injustice and to my way of thinking, homelessness and poverty and illness are deep injustices. It does not make me a better person because I try to do those things, it saves me from being a worse person if I were to not try at all.
Believe me, most of the people I’ve met in human services and social work are far from humble – they are successful and they genuinely want to make an impact, but it’s rare that a humble person garners any true attention. Or desires it. But attention isn’t the issue here – its the thinking of other before self. And that’s just so opposite what American DNA is taught to do.
Humility is choosing to do the right thing and loving our neighbors is what we are told is the right thing to do.