Some years ago, I was walking through an art gallery when I saw a cartoon by the artist Stephen Hanson. It captured my attention because at the time I was the president of a consulting firm. The cartoon depicted an obviously self-satisfied executive at the top of a ladder enjoying the view from above the clouds. What the executive didn’t know was that there were two beavers on the ground about to make a meal of the ladder. The cartoon – which hung in my office for years – was a lesson in humility. No matter what ladder we climb, we need to stay grounded and down-to-earth.
The root of the word “humility” is “humus.” It is the organic component of soil formed by the decomposition of leaves and plant material. The microorganisms that cause decomposition are the beavers of the plant world. Humus reminds me of the words I heard on Ash Wednesday when I was growing up: “Remember, you are dust; and unto dust you shall return.” Humility reminds us we are human, limited, and mortal. Of all the beavers that can gnaw on our ladder, time is the most relentless.
One of the ways that psychologist Anna Schaffner describes humility is “understanding our place in the larger scheme of things.”1 In her view, humility helps orient us; it gives us perspective. For those of us embracing the spiritual journey, humility is an essential trait for understanding who we are. It urges us to acknowledge our humanness and let God be God. Said another way: humility is an invitation to surrender.
At Caesarea Philippi, we see Peter struggling to grasp his place in the larger scheme of things. When Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, Peter gets it right: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds with praise: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.” (Matt. 16: 13-17)
For Peter, it’s a moment of glory. He is just starting to bask in it when Jesus seems to change the subject – talking about his suffering and death. Peter takes Jesus aside: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” This time Peter gets it wrong. Jesus’ praise is quickly followed by his stern rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matt. 16: 21-23)
Peter’s lesson in humility is discovering how quickly a moment of glory can become the brink of disaster. Jesus’ praise went to his head, and he lost sight of his limitations. His perspective is still all too human; he has yet to grasp Jesus’ larger kingdom vision. Like the self-satisfied executive above the clouds, he failed to see the beavers at the base of the ladder.
A lack of humility can lead to developing an inflated view of ourselves. One of my clients is an executive of a highly successful technology company. She has an insightful description of some of her colleagues: “Because they are on third base, they think they hit a triple.” She sees them as having an exaggerated view of themselves and their contribution to the company’s success. When we lack humility, we risk developing an unconscious arrogance that causes us to see ourselves as better than we are. Like Peter at Caesarea Philippi, we can overestimate our strengths and fail to recognize our limitations.
Humility challenges us to overcome arrogance. Yet, it also urges us to avoid adopting a negative perception of ourselves.
One of the questions that I used to stimulate small group discussion during high school retreats was: “What’s your biggest fault?” The room would immediately erupt with a loud discussion. The sharing was so intense that after a few minutes I would need to interrupt it. Then, I asked the follow-up question: “What’s your biggest strength?” The room would fall silent. A long, awkward pause followed until a few brave souls slowly began to talk about their strengths.
Humility challenges us to avoid devaluing ourselves and adopting a negative self-perception. It urges us to resist viewing ourselves as inadequate and defective. Seeing ourselves as “all need and no gift” leads to a lack of self-confidence, negative self-talk, and a poor self-image.
The larger scheme of things we need to orient us requires acknowledging our humanness and letting God be God. It helps us find the middle ground between self-satisfied arrogance and a negative self-image. Humility is a gift that helps us come to an honest and accurate view of ourselves. It allows us to understand and appreciate that each of us is a complex mix of strength and weakness, gift and need, goodness and sinfulness.
Humility helps us grasp that we are the beloved of God even when we stumble and fall. We aren’t perfect, and we don’t need to be. Jesus is consistent in blessing the poor in spirit and chastising the arrogant who see themselves as righteous.
Humility deepens the awareness of our need, and it opens us to receive God’s gift of mercy, grace, forgiveness, and love. When we rely on our own feeble efforts, we tend to block God’s redemptive love. When we acknowledge our humanness, we create the room within us for God to work.
The larger scheme of things that the spiritual journey urges us to adapt is an infinite horizon in which the God of love is relentless in calling us home. As our confidence in that vision grows, we have no need for a ladder or any fear of beavers. Staying grounded allows us to acknowledge that we are human, limited, and mortal. The honesty of that self-awareness lets us surrender to the awesome power of a God whose mercy, forgiveness, and love are infinite.
Questions to Ponder
As you reflect on the challenges of humility, consider the following questions:
- What ladders are you tempted to climb in order to elevate yourself?
- What experiences ground you and help keep you down-to-earth?
- In what ways are you inclined toward:
- Arrogance and an inflated self-image?
- Lack of self-confidence and a negative self-image?
- What can you do to trust an infinite horizon and be confident that God calls you home?
- In what ways are you being invited to surrender to the awesome power of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love?
1 “What Is Humility and Why Is It Important?” Positive Psychology.com, August 27, 2020, Anna Katharina Schaffner, Ph.D.