The second thing we need to understand about love is that love is humble. Being humble is often misrepresented with the image of a person going about their day, eyes looking down, not saying much, not trying to draw any attention to themselves, and not trying to be important. In my opinion this is not humility. That is my definition of a self-loathing martyr who lets fear run their life. Another way of not being humble is to be a selfish, self-centered know-it-all. These people are also driven by fear, the fear of not knowing. So to contrast these two ways of being, my definition of humility has two sides.
Humility is the acceptance of ambiguity and unabashedly using your strengths while managing your weaknesses. Let’s tackle that first part.
Ambiguity annoys the hell out of people. People don’t like uncertainty. The bottom line is that life is ambiguous. I would like to see us not be so arrogant to say that we have all the answers, that we know everything there is to know, that we know what will happen next and that we know everything about each other. What do we know for certain? If we are really honest with ourselves what we know for certain is not much. Let me further illustrate this point by summarizing a story from M. Scott Peck’s Further Along The Road Less Traveled.
Peck shares how a fictional rabbi from Russia has been a mentor to him. This mentor has taught him the valuable lesson of acknowledging that we just don’t know everything. The rabbi took twenty years to think about the intricacies of life, the questions we all ask, and our purpose here. He eventually came to the conclusion that he just did not know. He was empty of answers and his mind was free to roam the wilderness. This would scare most people but I think the rabbi was mature enough to accept it and to go about his business with a new enlightened understanding.
The rabbi continued his daily routine by going across the village to pray. One day he was met by a cop that was in a vengeful mood. The rabbi was an easy target for the cop. When the cop ask the rabbi where he was going, the rabbi replied that he did not know. This made the cop furious. You see the cop knew the rabbi’s daily routine. He knew that every day the rabbi walked across the village to the synagogue to pray. Thinking he knew exactly what was going on it rattled the cop’s reality when the rabbi answered that he did not know.
Not able to handle this ambiguity and perceived disrespect, the cop decides to teach the rabbi a lesson. However, it is the rabbi that ends up teaching the cop a lesson. The cop throws the rabbi in jail. Think about it. The cop was so sure that the rabbi was on his way to the synagogue to pray. The rabbi told the cop he did not know where he was going. He planned on going to pray, but he ended up in jail. As the cop threw the rabbi in jail, the rabbi turned to him and said, “You see, you just don’t know.”
Again, I ask what do we really know for certain? I would like to suggest that all we really have is our experiences and what we are currently observing. Everything else is faith. Such a statement will be hard for people to understand when all they see is the world in black or white. However, this is important to acknowledge because out of fear many people try to squelch any ambiguity in their lives. They have to know it all, they have to have an answer to everything, they have to analyze, judge, and label so everything makes sense. They want no mystery. If they can’t, then they try to control everything in order to squelch out all ambiguity. They create a delusional world in a violent way. Not just physical violence, but spiritual and mental violence as well.
If we look at our past and present we see examples of people being killed out of fear and attempts to control that ambiguity. Countless others have suffered physical, mental and spiritual abuse from religious leaders, governments, bosses, parents, teachers, and spouses. These violent acts are also done in an effort to control any ambiguity. If we are honest with ourselves, then we will see that we really don’t have control. It is all an illusion.
In the movie, Instinct, Dr. Theo Caulder thought he had control over his patient, Dr. Ethan Powell. In the scene I am about to share, Ethan doesn’t want to continue his session with Theo. Theo refuses to let Ethan go. So Ethan grabs Theo, wrestles him into a strangle hold in front of a table with paper and crayons on it. He asks who has the control? Ethan really wants him to ponder this question. Does Theo have the control because he is the therapist? Do the guards have control because of the perceived authority they have? Does Ethan have control because he has Theo into a strangle hold and could easily break his neck? Ethan wants Theo to realize that the answer is none of the above. The answer lies in asking a different question. Ethan tells Theo that he is going to take a test. If Theo answers correctly then he lives and if answers incorrectly then he dies.
Ethan asks what he has taken from Theo. Still feeling the tight hold around his neck, Theo answers “control.” Ethan explains to him that Theo never had control and no one has control for sure. Wanting Theo to learn, Ethan gives him a second chance. Again, Ethan asks what he has taken from Theo. “My freedom,” is Theo’s second answer. However, Ethan is quick to point out that those who are playing the ambition game are never free. They are slaves to their ambitions. Ethan knows this from his own ambitious pursuits which alienated him from all his loved ones.
Still wanting Theo to learn an important lesson, Ethan gives him one last chance. This time he will kill Theo. Theo finally realizes that it is his illusions of control and freedom that Ethan has taken from him. After answering “my illusions,” Ethan kisses Theo and lets him go. We all need to learn that trying to control ambiguity is an illusion.
I also find it disconcerting how many people, who have to have answers to everything, analyze and give explanations to anything you say. Many times they aren’t even right, but to them it is better to have an answer than to say, “I don’t know”. The reason this is important when humbly loving someone is this. We can’t assume we know everything there is to know about the people we love.
For example, say a friend is tired after a long day at work and just wants a little quiet time. I can’t assume that I know best how to take care of them. I would like to see us not assume we know how best to love the person we are loving. They know best, not us. They know their needs, not us. We need to humbly say we don’t know and that we don’t have all the answers. It may give us feelings of helplessness and pain; however the little discomfort we feel will be rewarded with a stronger love for others and ourselves.
The second side of being humble is something that is not usually associated with humility. Being humble also means using our strengths unabashedly and relying on the strengths of others for our weaknesses. When someone says, “Hey, you did a great job”, we look them straight in the eye and say, “Thanks, I did do a great job.” Do not hesitate to compliment yourself. You did the work, you need the recognition too. I am not advocating gloating. Just know that being humble is knowing and using your strengths.
Belittling ourselves when we are using our strengths is also very un-humble. I know that for most of my life when I was given a compliment on a strength of mine I would play it down or say, “Aw, it was nothing.” I remember one time after giving a great sermon I was shaking hands, receiving compliments, and playing them down as usual. Then one lady said to me, “Matt, just say thank you.” It was her way of saying, “Just acknowledge that you give a great sermon.” Using our strengths is a part of being humble.
When we need to do something that is not one of our strengths and we know someone who is strong in that area, we need to ask for their help. It is the know-it-alls that arrogantly do what they cannot.
I also have a hard time accepting or admitting when I need help. I have a weakness in organizing. This was something others that are organizational geniuses, have offered to help me with on countless occasions. Each time I refused. I have often been frustrated by my results because I plow ahead on my own. This is a perfect example of arrogantly doing what I cannot. Organizing is their strength and my weakness. If I want to be humble, then I need to be willing to ask for their help.
So how do we find out what our strengths and weaknesses are? The answer is self-discovery. Know thyself. We observe what comes naturally to us. What gives us the most joy to do? Even if it is hard labor is not a struggle to us. These are our strengths. The tasks we struggle with are our weakness. There is one resource I would highly recommend for the journey of self-discovery and that is the book Now Discover Your Strengths. It does a great job explaining strengths and weaknesses. It also has a strengths finder assessment that can be taken on-line.
Our strengths are a valuable part of who we are. They are a gift and like most gifts, they are best enjoyed when they are shared. Our strengths are the best possible thing we can share with the people we are loving. When we need a strength that we don’t have, we can seek out a person who has it. Shy away from sharing weaknesses. It usually ends up in frustration and is a very arrogant thing to do. Focus on sharing your strengths and only give enough attention to your weaknesses to realize what they are and that you need help with them.
Accepting ambiguity, that we don’t know everything, unabashedly using our strengths, and relying on others for our weaknesses are the ways to humbly love others and ourselves. It reminds me of a quote by Parker Palmer from his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. He says, “The great community asks us to do only what we are able and trusts the rest to other hands.”