Carina Chocano wrote a timely column earlier this year entitled, “Laying Low,” her premise being that we have lost the virtue of humility in our society. The loss has been so complete, per Chocano, that we have even inverted humility’s true meaning.
She wrote: “These days…to pronounce yourself ‘humbled’ is to announce your greatness. Because in the present-day vernacular, people are most humbled by the things that make them look good.” And then she quipped, “When did humility get so cocky?” Indeed, when exactly?
In a word, humility is “humus,” meaning dirt. Literally, it is “what falls beneath our feet,” a willingness to fall as low as possible, an attitude of deference or service. Contrast this with a word strikingly similar in sound to “humus,” but completely opposite in meaning: “Hubris.” It means “defiance,” and in ancient use describes an uprising against the gods.
With humility – humus – we go down to the earth, to the dirt, lowering ourselves in surrender. With hubris we rise from the earth, we scrape and scramble to the top, and attempt to defy heaven itself. The classic, cautionary tale told by the Greeks to illustrate hubristic danger is the story of Icarus.
Icarus was a young man exiled on the Isle of Crete with his father. To escape the island, his father, who was a clever and inventive man, built Icarus a set of massive wings made of eagle feathers and candle wax. Icarus is warned, however, about using this powerful gift: “Do not fly too high, my son,” he is told, “for the closer you rise toward the hot sun, the greater risk there is of the wax melting.”
Icarus obeys, at first, but the act of flying filled him with such arrogance and invincibility, that he couldn’t stop himself from climbing higher and higher. Before he knew it the wax melted, his wings disintegrated, and Icarus was left flapping his naked arms far above the earth. He perished after falling into the sea. That is hubris; rising, escalating pomposity that ignores the obvious: What goes up, must come down.
For all the handwringing and lamenting of eroding “Christian values” in our nation, I offer this overlooked and under attempted attitude adjustment: Humility. If followers of Jesus would take his words to heart (words repeated time and again in the Gospels) – “that the greatest among you will be a servant, and the one who would be first shall be last” – it would do more to restore genuine, earnest faith than all the moralizing campaigns of a generation.
In what might be the oldest creedal statement of the church, and what is certainly one of the earliest Christian hymns, the Apostle Paul cut to the heart of the matter: “Have the same attitude that Jesus had. He gave up his privileges and took the humble position of a servant, and emptied himself.” Anything less than this kind of humility will never do, for anything less than this can never truly be called Christian.