“EVERYBODY talks about humility ain’t got it . . . ” This paraphrase of the well-known spiritual’s denial of unanimous claims to heaven is just as true as the original, perhaps more so. For probably some people who do talk about heaven are going there. But no one who claims humility for himself has it. He may have had it but at the moment he claims it, it’s gone.
Of all the principles which we AA members “seek to practice in all our affairs” none is more misunderstood, more difficult to define, and more elusive than the oft-claimed attitude of humility.
Countless AA speakers in public talks and private conversations lay claim to humility with emphasis and obvious gratitude. That this very expression of possession negates their claims never seems to occur to them. But some may wonder why their protestations are not more enthusiastically received.
It may be easier in coming to an understanding of what humility is to set down some of the things it is not. It is not, repeat not, “self-abasement,” as one dictionary describes. This false definition is largely responsible for much of the misunderstanding. The dictionary is correct in setting down this meaning because a dictionary is not a compendium of accurate meanings only; it lists all the meanings which men have given to words. Most common has been the idea of snivelling, groveling self-abasement, so repulsive to all men of strength or character.
Dickens’ well-known Uriah Heep, the miserable, hand-washing scoundrel who loudly proclaimed to those with whom he had dealings how ‘umble he was while plotting to steal their eye-teeth, has made humility a despicable word to thousands who have read, this fraudulent claim to humility.
Nor is humility “lowliness of mind,” as another definition puts it. This indicates that somehow the sad, the depressed, the mournful are truly humble when, as a matter of fact, they may be anything but.
The humble man does not depreciate his abilities or strengths; he does not cultivate lowliness of mind; he does not constantly run himself down to himself or others.
A man must appraise himself and his capacities, his strengths and weaknesses honestly. If he is a capable salesman, artist, doctor, or writer he is not humble when he denies or downgrades these capacities. Rather he rejoices in them and seeks to do just as good a job with them as he can.
Most annoying is the false humility which is so common in social give and take. Admire a woman’s dress and she will coyly say that it’s only a little thing she picked up and isn’t so much after all. Agree with her at that point and watch the fur fly.
Or compliment a hostess on a charming dinner and listen to her deprecate it as not so much after all. But if you accept this false valuation you won’t be invited back. This is not humility. It’s fishing for words of praise.
Most of us tend to think of humility as the opposite of pride–“freedom from pride or arrogance,” as another definition puts it. This concept lays the subtle trap into which we can all so easily fall. We feel that we are not proud; we are aware that what has happened to us has been through the help of others; we certainly feel no arrogance at being alcoholics.
And so we can say, “I’m humble, and thank God for it.” But the moment we make this claim we are boasting, we are being proud, we are making claims for ourselves; hence our humility has disappeared.
Most helpful in understanding the true nature of humility and how it may be achieved and maintained is the concept of J. B. Phillips, outstanding English churchman and author, who points out that humility cannot be achieved by trying for it.
Humility, he says, is a by-product. It is a by-product of gratitude which is the true opposite of pride. A man who is always grateful and acknowledges his debts to others for what has happened to him cannot be proud. He becomes humble as a by-product of being grateful.
Gratitude is an attitude widely prevalent in AA; one of the most refreshing things about our group life is that men and women, without embarrassment or compunction, announce vehemently to a listening world that they are alcoholics who have recovered through the grace of God and Alcoholics Anonymous. It is this attitude of perpetual gratitude that makes our appeal compelling; our failure to claim virtue for ourselves makes us doubly appealing to those who know they have no virtue and despair of attaining it.
Just as long as we continue to voice this gratitude, this sense of dependence on God, as we understand Him, to whom we have surrendered the direction of our lives, we achieve humility. But if, in our delight at the feeling of humility which our gratitude brings us, we start to claim it, we begin to lose not only our humility but our appeal to others. The message we are to carry begins to sound a little stuffy and just slightly self-righteous.
“What then?” a reader may ask. “Cannot we ever be humble?” Of course we can but we must leave to others the discovery of our humility; we must let another tell the world that we are truly humble.
The greatest temptation of all comes when some one approaches us and says, “I liked your talk. You are really humble.” The humble answer is, “Whether I’m humble or not, I cannot say. But I’m glad you liked my talk and if there was anything in it which was of help to you I’m glad. I’m always grateful to God and to AA whenever I am able to say something which gives another man a lift.”
There’s a classic picture of self-righteousness and true humility in the Biblical story of the Pharisee and the Publican. The former, a devout and devoted follower of Judaism, prayed, thanking God that he was good, did good deeds and was not as other men. He was apparently grateful and used words of gratitude but the attitude was one of self-righteous superiority.
The Publican, or tax collector, so the story goes, dared not even look up, but with eyes downcast said, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Too often the recitals of benefits of sobriety gained through AA sound a little reminiscent of the Pharisee. “I’m grateful to God and AA that I’m not like some people I know, some of those non-alcoholics and some of the alcoholics who cannot seem to get the program as I do. I’m grateful for getting humility.”
The humble AA member will also ascribe his recovery to others–to the grace of God and AA–but will add something like this: “Yes, I owe it all to these people who have helped me. I never felt better in my life; things never went better; I’ve had troubles but, thanks to the wisdom which has come from following the program, I’ve been able to face up to them; I hope that I may always remember, no matter what I do or where I go, that some one else deserves all the credit.”
Then, properly, those listening can turn to one another and say, “Now there’s a humble guy.”