Humility Not Humiliation

Henry Karlson

Humility is one of these great virtues which can make us soar.  If practiced, it can bring us great peace, as St. Anthony of Egypt was to find:  Abba Anthony said: ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said, groaning, “What can get from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers).  

Humility allows us to understand and accept our own limitations. If we know our limits and work with them, they teach us why we need others, why we need to work together in a community, not thinking we can do all things by ourselves.  If we can accept ourselves, our weaknesses, we can accept others and their weaknesses.  We can learn to love and respect each other without trying to manipulate them.  Even if we know the truth, we are still limited in its execution, and we must be willing to accept such limitations, otherwise we end up in bitter distress, taking it out bitterly on those who do not agree with us.  Ilias the Presbyter said it well: 

Truth without humility is blind. That is why it becomes contentious: it tries to support itself on something, and finds nothing except rancour. (“Gnomic Anthology I” in The Philokalia. Volume III.)

By truly knowing and understanding ourselves, we do not try to become something which is impossible for us to be and we avoid frustration by our lack of success.  This is not to say humility is about accepting unjust impositions upon ourselves, such as social constructs meant to limit us and prevent us from achieving our full potential.   

Humility is not humiliation, though humiliation often tries to use humility to force a given end on us.

For example, it was quite common throughout the centuries for society to treat women as incapable of many tasks, such as rational discourse, and women were told that humility required them to accept such declarations without challenge.  Time and time again, brilliant women would allow such humiliation to keep them from self-perfection; if they entered into social discourse, they would do so with the caveat that they are women.  Even if what they said was good, they would still qualify their thoughts, “But what do I know, being a woman?”  This is also true in many other situations.  Slavery was often kept in place through such humiliation.  Aboriginal peoples would often be humiliated by “civilized society,” being told to take their proper place behind those who conquered them. The history of humanity includes a history of humiliation, of one group or another finding a way to lord it over others through a claim of superiority. 

Humiliation works on and corrupts the virtue of humility.   It uses ideologies to promote its agenda.  If there is any challenge to the system, humiliation seeks to turn back and repress that challenge by socially disabling and humbling the transgressor. 

Humiliation often uses the rhetoric of humility, twisting it from within, taking phrases and statements of truly humble people and turning the spirit of humility into the legality of humiliation.  Humility, on the other hand, seeks self-transcendence: by accepting the limitations of oneself, one can reach out to others, to become strong together in communal society, allowing one to perfect that which one is great at and give it to the community.  Humiliation is about self-destruction, about finding a way to encourage some person or another to admit defeat and not strive to better themselves, but to be trapped by the expectations of another.  Humility relies on truths, allowing one not only to know their own limitations, but also their strengths. Humiliation twists the truth, never allowing one to know their strength, but only to see, and be trapped by, their own weaknesses.  Humility is about truth, while humiliation is about the falsification of humility: so-called false humility is the end result of humiliation.

Humility is the opposite of pride, while pride is the foundation of humiliation.  Humility seeks the integral good of the whole person, while pride only seeks the elevation of the ego.  Pride wants to create a vision of reality which cannot exist, and impose that vision upon the self (destroying it from self-transcendence) and upon others (by trying to push them down through humiliation). Humility allows for unity and love and is needed to heal the rifts which create disorder in the world.  Those who have and those who have not, those who consider themselves victors and those who consider themselves losers all have need for humility and a true and honest assessment of oneself and of others.  In this way, humility promotes finding ways to come back together and heal the rifts.  Pride works against humility, seeking to belittle and destroy the other.  If I am a “have not”, my pride wants to humiliate the “haves”; if I am the winner in a contest, my pride seeks to humiliate the losers so they will not threaten me in the future.  Humility wants what is best for all, while humiliation only wants a simulacrum of the best for the ego. 

Humility is not an easy virtue to achieve.  Humiliating oneself can create false-humility, but this drifts toward a nihilistic self-hatred.  Seeking to be humble, we often become our own worst enemies.  We let our pride create a vision for the self and then look down upon ourselves for not meeting our own requirements.  The true battle is the battle for humility within, a battle which allows us to love and be loved, to accept that there is good within.  Humility prevents us from imposing false expectations on ourselves, and so we do not get hurt even when others seek to humiliate us.  But if we have not learned humility, but practice self-humiliation, our pride is hurt even worse by the humiliation done to us by others: we take their words to heart, and turn it in upon ourselves, destroying ourselves even more even as we erroneously believe that we are being humble.  

Humility is one of the most important and yet most abused virtues.  True humility sets us free from false expectations, while false humility creates socialized inferiority leading to the humiliation of one or more people for ideological reasons or as a result of pride.  If we want to move forward as a people, if we want to make sure as a society we do not wallow in our own pain and sorrow and self-destruct, we need to embrace humility – true humility, not the false humility of humiliation which we so often confused with true humility.  If we want to know how to save ourselves as well as our society from the damage of pride and humiliation, the voice spoken to St. Anthony is as prophetic to us today as it was to him.  There is only one way: true humility.

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