Tuesday, October 1, 2013

On Humility

He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.   (Christianity - Luke 1:52)

Successful indeed are the believers
Who are humble in their prayers.  (Islam - Quran 23:1-2)

Be humble, be harmless,
Have no pretension.   (Hinduism - Bhagavad Gita 13.7)

The fool who knows that he is a fool is for that very reason a wise man;  the fool who thinks he is wise is called a fool indeed.    (Buddhism - Dhammapada 63)

Be of an exceedingly humble spirit, for the end of man is the worm.    (Judaism -  Mishnah, Abot 4.4)

A Dream to the Wise is Sufficient

Today I will tell you about a dream I had when I was 24 years old.   This was a time in my life when my own successes in the academic and professional realms had perhaps gone a little bit to my head.   I felt that I had control of my destiny because my high level of skill and competence would enable me to have such control.    This dream conveyed what would turn out to be an important message.

I found myself in the midst of a lush forest.    But I knew that this was a special place, sort of like a zoo with no cages.    The animals were free to roam.   In the distance,  I discerned the motion of a large animal concealed by thick brush.    No problem.   Conveniently enough, there was a stairway that led up to an observation platform built around the bole of a large tree.   I ascended and looked out at the scene.   Sure enough, a grizzly bear was making his way toward me.

The other unusual thing about this dream was that I knew I was dreaming.   This increased my confidence that there was no danger in the situation.    As the bear neared the bottom of the stairway, I nonchalantly jumped onto the handrail and slid down to meet him.   There we were, the bear and I, our faces about two feet apart.  He looked up into my eyes and, in a calm and matter-of-fact tone, said, “I had a damn good lunch today.   Now get out of here.”   At that point, I took the grizzly bear’s advice by waking up.

At first, this dream was something hilarious that I could laugh about with my friends.     As the years have gone by, the dream has become rich in meanings as I have reflected on it.    In my state of youthful hubris, I showed a lack of respect for the bear’s power to have me for dessert.   In retrospect, I know this was the message of the dream:   the vital importance of humility.

In a culture that glorifies the superhero, humility is often confused for self deprecation.    So what is humility?  And why is it so important?    One way I would state it is this:  to be humble is to realize that one achieves greatness by being a part of something greater than one’s self.     We are parents, we are mentors, we are co-workers and collaborators.   In these roles we rejoice in our ability to contribute to the success of others.   We are students in the school of life.   In this role we see the opportunity to learn from those who don’t agree with us.   We are citizens, we are voters, we are residents of a city.  In these roles, we see our own benefit in the health of the body politic.   And we are members of the human race – our extended family.    And as spiritual beings, we become awake when we seek relationship with our Creator.

If the grizzly bear had time to elaborate, he might also tell us that not only is humility a personal virtue that affects so much of one’s life, but also one without which we can’t build a civilization.

O CHILDREN OF DESIRE! Put away the garment of vainglory, and divest yourselves of the attire of haughtiness.  (Baha’i -  #47 from the Persian Hidden Words)

Humility exalteth man to the heaven of glory and power, whilst pride abaseth him to the depths of wretchedness and degradation.   (Baha’i – Epistle to the Son of the Wolf)

Brian Aull, Bahai Chaplain at MIT