The Rev. Kathleen Rudoff
I have been inundated of late with emails and social media ads from companies claiming to have the perfect gift that I should be giving this holiday season: the perfect gift for the person that has everything, the perfect gift for the environmentally conscious, the musician, the tween, the athlete, the creative child, and so on. I seriously doubt there’s such a thing as a “perfect” gift. But I have been thinking about a gift that is sorely needed and often overlooked. It’s the gift of humility, and it’s not an easy one to acquire, or to give. You don’t have to look too far to see that it’s in short supply these days.
It can be hard to be humble when living in a society that prides itself on competition and the idolatry of individuality. It’s even more difficult when you think you already have all the answers. Just think of how the word humility is most often used: defined negatively as a low view of oneself. In the corporate world, assertiveness and authoritativeness are so highly valued, humility is mistakenly viewed as a sign of weakness. But the world’s religions have a great deal to say about humility. Jesus taught in Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The Koran tells us “Successful indeed are the believers who are humble in their prayers…” In the Jewish tradition, humility is among the greatest of the virtues. Hinduism’s Bhagavad-Gita tells us to “Be humble, be harmless, have no pretension…” An Ojibway storyteller writes about what humility means in that native tradition: “The old ones say humility is the foundation of everything, Nothing can exist without it. Humility is the ability to see yourself as an essential part of something larger… It teaches us there are no greater or lesser beings or things. There is only the whole….”. No matter our religious background or affiliation we are called to have humble hearts.
One of my Unitarian Universalist colleagues has posited that humility is a way of holding oneself that creates space for others, that allows others to breathe. It’s an open, inviting, welcoming way of engaging others. I recently came to realize that it was my own lack of creating space that caused me to make assumptions about a group of people and kept me from being in right relationship with them. That’s what assumptions do; keeping us from relationships of mutual respect and compassion. My assumptions, stemming from a lack of humility, were a barrier I had to dismantle. Every one of us runs the risk of making assumptions about other people, about intentions, and about expectations. But we can learn to be humble and accept the gift for ourselves while offering it to others by acknowledging our own limitations, appreciating others, and rediscovering a sense of wonder. After all, the jaded “I’ve seen it all” attitude makes us feel far more important than we are, and the truth is that nobody has actually seen it all, done it all, or knows it all.
Humility is a core issue for our nation, for our individual relationships, and for our religious communities. In our work for social justice there is a place for humility as well, for when you’re humble you bring the best of yourself to the table while empowering others to do the same.
Begin sharing that gift of humility with awareness of your own assumptions, limitations, and achievements. Humility allows you to be honest with yourself and is a manifestation of love. It is how resilient community is built through strengthened relationships and deeper dialogue.
I have come to see and experience humility as profound reverence for every person and all living beings. It has been said that the first test of a great person is their humility. The English philosopher John Ruskin said the first test of a great person is their humility. It’s a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them. And they see something divine in every other person and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful. I can’t think of a more perfect gift. May you give and receive humility in abundance this season and beyond.
The Rev. Kathleen Rudoff is from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury.