26 Shvat, 5774
January 27, 2014
A professor of mine told me the following story. Just after he received his doctorate, he attended a seminar with an eminent thinker in his field. *Said eminent thinker asked, “So, young man, what do you do?” My professor responded, “I’m a scholar.” The eminent thinker replied, “Son, ‘scholar’ is what other people call you, never what you call yourself.”
The same is true for humility. It is a virtue sought by an individual, but a title that only others can bestow.
Humility seems to be making a comeback among those of my generation. The Fleet Foxes even wrote humility’s revival into a song: “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see/And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be/A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”
I greet any measure of retreat from pride with eagerness. Societal arrogance comes with a corollary blindness to the suffering of others.
The problem comes when, in a Facebook world, we tout our achievements without being a total…ah…you know what I mean.
Enter fauxmility, or the humble brag, most often expressed when a person says or posts, “I am humbled” proximate to the incredible honor they’ve just received. The problem here is not the intention – most people come from an honest and good place, and want to share their accomplishment while eschewing elitism. The problem is the words. To express that one is humbled when one is in fact elevated twists the meaning of the word. Hearing words that function against their apparent usage—a familiarity we acquire by suffering through political campaigns—makes us all wary and distrustful.
The Bible has an instance of saying, “I am humbled” – katonti (lit. I am small). Exactly one instance, I should point out. It comes in the context of asking for a favor: when Jacob prays for God to save him from his brother Esav, he says, “I am humbled by all of the kindness and truth that You have done for your servant, for with my staff I crossed the Jordan and now I’ve become [blessed enough] to divide myself into two camps (for protection).” (Genesis 32:11)
However, the phrase comes in the context of the sentiment, “you’ve given me more than I deserve, yet I ask for more” – that is to say, a position of weakness. When a person is in a position of strength, it is very difficult to explicitly mention humility without raising the specter of its opposite.
This may appear to be a purely linguistic issue, but it is not. Pride is a tricky, sneaky thing; it will easily ride backwards on our words to twist our ways of thinking. Pride occasions myopia, and both ethical goodness and spiritual wisdom require a clear perspective. Humility keeps our internal compass centered.
So perhaps, when sharing our latest honor, our job should be to avoid expressions of either pride or humility at all, and simply focus on an unadulterated good for the soul – gratitude. And, despite the way the internet pushes our exhibitionism, there may be times for us to keep our successes as private victories, wholly to ourselves.
* Names have been concealed to protect the innocent…and the guilty.