â€œGet wisdom; get insight: do not forget, nor turn away. . . . Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you.â€ -Â Proverbs 4:5-6
In academics emphasis is frequently placed more on how much one knows, rather than on the process of learning. An environment geared towards test-taking and preeminent reputations can easily take us far from humility, especially if a rigid certainty is elevated above inquiry.
Trappist monk Thomas Keating teaches that humility is â€œwhat God most looks for in us,â€ calling it â€œan attitude of honesty with God, oneself, and all realityâ€ and â€œthe forgetfulness of selfâ€ thatâ€™s â€œthe hardest job on earth,â€ one that paradoxically â€œdoesnâ€™t come about by tryingâ€ (The Human Condition 21; Open Mind 164, 67).
How then? Keating defines humility as an unconventional, constructive attitude toward humiliation. When oneâ€™s dignity or self-respect is crushed, one prayerfully accepts whatever is true in the humiliation and refuses what isnâ€™t trueâ€”this process of letting go of the ego and its â€œemotional programs for happinessâ€ (The Human Condition 30) softens the soul in humility, Keating says. He isnâ€™t, however, endorsing an acceptance of abuse but is encouraging a wise use of lifeâ€™s difficulties that come our way.
In this context, Keating references twelfth-century Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, who saw humiliation as the path to humility (Invitation to Love, 112). Keating observes, â€œSometimes a sense of failure is a great means to true humility,â€ adding, â€œI realize this is not the language of successâ€ (The Human Condition, 21).
The â€œlanguage of successâ€ plagues academics. Our lives are ordered by earning superior grades, achieving advanced degrees, contributing to studentsâ€™ graduations, attending academic congresses, and in every way making progress. These words share the Latin gradus for â€œstep,â€ reminding us how strictly measurement-oriented our careers can sometimes be, so much so that aggressiveness (a â€œstepping towardâ€) can arise when someone seems to get in the way of our next rung.
If a resume mindset and the final product become dominant, the joy of our disciplinesâ€™ exploring and sharing can also diminish. High standards and hard work are crucial to the learning process, but so is the freedom to not get it right on occasion and then try again.
Sometimes I think weâ€™re trying so hard to be right that we miss the journey of learningâ€”more process than arrival. I still love looking up words I donâ€™t know and also those I (think I) do know. I delve into points of grammar a lot, too, since I may remember a fact wrongly, or opinion may have changed; usually some new interesting point emerges.
I saw humility in action when I was a freshman in college and never forgot it. My much-respected German professor was also my favorite English professor. He possessed gravitas, had mastered German, had memorized whole passages of Emerson, and was gentle with floundering newbies. One day a student asked him a sinewy question he couldnâ€™t answer. He stopped his usual pacing, reflection stilling his features. â€œI donâ€™t know,â€ he admitted, smiling, â€œbut Iâ€™ll find out.â€
How can we invite more serious playfulness into our careers?
If we only find what weâ€™re looking for in research and in life, what have we learned?
God of Love,
You can help us who teach learn how to be teachable.
Please teach us.
You can help us turn the dross of humiliation into the gold of humility.
Please show us how.
Lead us in seeking Wisdom so that we can know you and be truly happy.
Thomas Keating, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation, Paulist Press, 1999; Invitation to Love, Bloomsbury, 2011; and Open Mind, Open Heart, St. Benedictâ€™s Monastery, 2006.
Image courtesy of stux at Pixabay:Â http://pixabay.com/en/users/stux-12364/
About the author:
Dr. Carmen Acevedo Butcher has co-authored textbooks on the history of the English language, publishes books on the Christian women mystics and other medieval writers, blogs for The Well, and lectures on linguistics, lectio divina, and the process of writing. She teaches at Shorter University, and you can find her online at www.carmenbutcher.com.