Week 1

“On Humility”

by Margaret Allen, minister, The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook

From Hasidic tradition we have a little story about Rabbi Simcha Bunim Bonhart, who lived in the Polish village of Peshischa at the turn of the 19th century. They say that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: Bishvili nivra ha-olam— “For my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote: “V’anokhi afar v’efer”— “I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder to himself. In one pocket “For my sake the world was created.” In the other pocket “I am but dust and ashes.” Such is the paradoxical nature of the practice of humility.

To be humble is to understand that you are part of a magnificent story in which you play a critical part. You must know that you have gifts, that your body is a miracle, that through this body you express a unique genius, and that you have an awesome capacity to create new things and to solve vexing problems. When you look up into the summer sky and see the Milky Way spilled across the blackness of space you must think to yourself that you are part of a complex, indescribably beautiful cosmos; that you are made of stardust; that you too are the creator of universes. Through your own eyes you see your place in the world as an actor, an agent, a consumer, a creator, a recipient of and embodiment of magnificence. “For my sake the world was created.” In one pocket you have this truth.

To be humble is also to understand that everything you are right now will fall apart, will cycle back into formlessness, and all you have been and done is subsumed into the ongoing evolution of a life vastly larger than your own, so vast and so complex that your existence has a next to negligible effect. You will die with questions unanswered, with your most durable foibles and weaknesses still making a mess of things. You will die leaving behind beings you have hurt and dreams that came to nothing. Nothing you are or do matters and nothing that does matter was revealed or understood or accomplished by you alone. You were always part of something much larger than yourself. In the other pocket you have this truth. “I am but dust and ashes.”

Both slips of paper are true, and true at the same time. To be humble is to live in the balance of those truths.

When I got out of my car in the parking garage of Stony Brook University Medical Center, a man in his forties or so stopped me to ask if I knew where the nearest access to the hospital was from there. We chatted as I led him to the right corner of the garage and we went together down the stairs to the hospital doors. As we walked, he told me he was going to visit his first grandchild—a boy, born that night. I told him that I was a minister and I was going to be with a family that was taking someone they love off life support, and that the man was likely to die within a few hours. I said I was glad to know that at the same time another family would be welcoming a new life. And we both said together: “the cycle of life.” And I said “Enjoy the new light in your life.”

The Milky Way. A wonder of nature or of art. The birth of a child. The dying process. The compost pile. This body. What can this body do, between the gates of life and death, to honor and protect the world it is born into? This is the question one might ask of the balancing point between the wisdom of the right pocket and the wisdom of the left pocket.

The words humble, humility, humus and human all have linguistic origins in the root word for earth. And the name of the first human being created, as described in the Hebrew scriptures is Adam, which is closely related to the word for the earth from which he was formed: adamah. To be humble is to be grounded. To be humble is to be grounded in who you are, in who you are shaping yourself to become, and in the work that you are made to do most joyously in the world. To be so grounded is to be secure in the wisdom of the slips of paper in both pockets. And to be so grounded is to understand that nothing, absolutely nothing you do, was accomplished by you alone. You are in perpetual debt to seen and unseen helpers, people who have been dead for days or centuries, people who made the lamp, wrote the book, sewed the shirt, built the road, sang the song, eased your shoulders out of the birth canal, held your hand as you took your last breath. To be grounded in humility is to know that the whole picture is bigger than you can see, but that your piece of the puzzle fits in its one right place.

We are interdependent. No one accomplishes anything on their own. We tend to think our “success” in life depends on our own intellect, our own drive, our resilience, our creativity. Yes, you have your gifts and skills, but the environment in which you learn what it means to be human has more influence than we commonly acknowledge. The field of striving towards your own “right place” isn’t level or fair. Your capacities and options are shaped by the circumstances of your birth and growth: how large the spectrum of possibility that you see for your life; what networks of mentors, advisors, sponsors you have available to move towards a vocation that calls you; how much others are able to empower you to defy the norms that are set for you as a member of the community; how much wealth is at your disposal for easing your way through the many barriers you will encounter; how adults around you responded to frustration, setbacks, betrayal, and mistakes when you were growing up; how they modeled critical thinking, creative problem-solving, attentive observation of the world around them; the quality of education you received and the quality of your internalization and organization of that education; the way in which your environment evokes and respects your response. Some people get more help, a clearer view, more time, a cleaner path as they make their way to their right place. More basically, some people get clean water, clean air, enough to eat, a safe place to live—and some do not.

A grounded life is all about finding that right place for your piece of the puzzle, yet understanding that our contribution to the box top picture means nothing out of the context of all the other pieces. As we are reminded in the Shaker song “’Tis a Gift to Be Simple,” “’Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be, and when we find ourselves in the place just right, ’twill be in the valley of love and delight.” To be humble is to know you are in the right place without claiming that you made the place or the rightness of it. Humility is one of those paradoxical virtues. If you claim to be humble, you are not. Humbleness is something others notice about you because you are grounded “in the place just right.” They notice it about you because you give them the space, time and attention they need to find their own. You welcome your partners in building a common life at the balance point.

My colleague Josh Pawelek, minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, Connecticut, talks about humility as “a character trait, a demeanor, a manner, a personality type, a way of holding or conducting oneself that creates space for others, that allows others to breathe; it’s a way of moving lightly through the world, walking softly upon the earth; it’s an open, inviting, welcoming, hospitable way of engaging others. It’s a way of service. It’s a virtue.” This sounds to me like what my teachers in seminary called “servant leadership.” The opposite of humility, many have noted, is not pride, but arrogance. We all have our place, our genius, our work, but no one person’s place or work or genius is more important than any other.

Perhaps my right place as a servant leader is on the edge. Perhaps I am an edge piece. Perhaps as a minister I serve to frame what we do together in my congregation, making the boundary visible, providing orientation for the placement of other pieces. But to think I am the only one in such a role, or to think myself more important than other pieces of the whole because of that function, which many other also have, is to be stupidly, even destructively arrogant. In truth, I am neither superior nor inferior. Our common vision requires the insight, ideas, inspiration, effort others bring. If I fail, it is not my failure. If the picture we make is awesome, its awesomeness has little to do with me and everything to do with us. Grounded together, each with our own portion, the picture becomes clearer and clearer, makes more and more sense. No winners, no losers. No smart, no dumb. No easy, no hard. No top, no bottom. No right or wrong. No blame or acclaim. Just beauty. Just gratitude. Just wonder. Just love. Just together. That is the story of a world of meaning and intention and direction, a place and a people “just right,” built on humility.

Wonder and humility have a reciprocal relationship. What is beyond us in wonderfulness engenders humility. The night sky, a newborn’s face, a piece of art that transforms our understanding. What is simple and accessible and real and down-to-earth and everyday engenders wonder. The man crossing the threshold into the breathless Mystery, the compost pile steaming in the cool morning air, the peach, the bath, the sad eyes of a friend, the leaves turning red, the bulbs storing themselves for spring.

To be humble is to keep the balance faithfully together. In one pocket a slip of paper that says: “For my sake the world was created.” In the other pocket a slip of paper that says: I am but dust and ashes.” To be humble is to keep these messages handy, one in each pocket, and to take out one or the other to read as necessary, as a reminder to yourself.