I was talking recently with an artist at the reception for his show of folk art at our local public art gallery. I commented on the fact that one of the themes he was exploring with his art was The Seven Deadly Sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride), and their antidotes, The Seven Heavenly Virtues (chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, forgiveness, kindness, humility) - other virtues exist, like faith, hope and charity, but he had not included them in this particular set of works. One painting listed the virtues in various shades of pink. Another listed the sins only in black and white. Some of his works featured all fourteen sins and virtues in a jumble of blocks of colour painted on handmade wooden benches. Several of these benches were distributed around the room and he invited me, as he and his wife themselves had done, to sit down on one of them while we chatted. He told me he found the subject of the sins and virtues of great interest and he hoped with his art to encourage people to talk about them more. I took that as a cue to do so because a thought occurred to me recently that the virtue of humility is greatly underrated in our world today. I told the artist that I believe many of the societal problems we suffer could be prevented if we only came at things with a bit more personal humility. And because I love a good philosophical discussion.
I gave the artist an example of what I thought having humility meant: say we find ourselves in conflict with someone, perhaps a spouse or family member. Our first reaction may be to find fault with them. Having true humility would cause us to look into ourselves first, to ask ourselves, what might I have done to cause this conflict? Or at least to contribute to it. The effect of humility in this situation would be an automatic decrease in the level of blame we might put on the other person and a desire to resolve the conflict in as peaceful manner as possible. If we are the first to apologize, we can also be a good example to the other person, causing them to try to resolve any future conflicts peacefully, too. We don't have to be doormats, we just have to desire peaceful, functional relationships with those we spend the most time with and realize our role is often to give them the benefit of the doubt. Which means being humble and not always having to be right.
One definition of humility I found was this: a modest opinion or estimate of one's own importance. Humility is a tough concept for many of us. We in the western nations are taught to be individualistic and to be on a constant and relentless quest for personal material comfort and security. We sometimes push our own agenda in order to elevate ourselves above the next person, because we see our needs and wants as more important than theirs.
In my husband's position at a 300-plus room hotel, hearing a wide range of complaints is part of his job. However, the stories he sometimes comes home with are astounding. People are often so quick to lash out, to blame, to scream at the staff if they are unsatisfied. They are sure that their needs are the most important thing in the universe at that moment and that everyone within a 200 meter radius needs to hear about it. Perhaps they were ignored as children and have an inner conviction that volume, anger and bullying is the way to get attention, or perhaps they learned as children to scream and yell until they got what they wanted because that tactic wore their parents down, and it has continued to work in their adult lives. And yet other people, when they have a grievance, share it with the staff in a way that is polite and respectful and not at the very top of their voice. Perhaps when they were children they were taught to ask for the things they wanted, but learned to accept the occasional disappointment as part of life. 'You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need,' may even have been sung to them from time to time. Humility is acknowledging the respect due to one human being from another. Humanity is in essence ironic. Although we are all lowly beings on this planet, we mere specks in the universe also have great power and responsibility to try and make things better for each other, or else life is endlessly cruel and competitive. Unfortunately, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' is often forgotten in the service industry because the idea of having people at our service seems to give us a heightened sense of our own importance, however fleeting, and thus, the one rendering the service a lower status in our estimation. Else, why would we feel free to scream at them for making a mistake on our bill or bringing us the wrong sandwich?
Humility also naturally increases empathy. When I see someone begging for food on a city street or scoping out the ditches and public garbage containers for bottles and cans to bring to the recycling depot in order to get a little money for their needs I try to imagine how many degrees of separation actually exist between them and myself. The line between their standard of living and mine is fragile and I am perfectly aware of that. I have inner resources to draw upon if I ever found myself alone and cut off from the present comfortable income I am priviledged to live on, but life holds no guarantees for any of us. Everything we cherish could be taken away from us at any moment and the idea of that helps to keep me humble, and it helps me to look upon the homeless and the needy with empathy because with a little stretch of the imagination I can put myself in their shoes. I know how hard it would be to maintain some sense of dignity. The same goes for my fellow humans living in poverty and/or under oppression around the globe. The awareness of my great fortune in being Canadian humbles me enough to want to do what I can for those who rely on the generosity of others in order to put their children in school and food on their table, as well as making sure I am paying attention to what is going on in my own backyard to make life fair and equitable for all citizens.
Since talking with the artist while sitting on his benches decorated with the sins and virtues, I have had much to ponder, so I suppose his aim worked with me at least. I know I have some stuff to work on, but the great thing about virtues like humility is that they are achievable. Practise makes perfect. We just have to start small and take gradual steps toward being more human. Humility and human start with the same three letters, which is no accident. The Latin root word 'hum' means in English, 'ground'. The way I see it is this: if we approach life from the humble ground up we will realize we are all deserving of love and basic human respect from each other no matter what our status or gifts may be. If we act on this realization not only will our immediate circle benefit, but the ripples of our seemingly small actions will move out beyond us and into the world, and our collective actions will achieve great things.