Our Virtue of the Quarter is Humility. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” may not be the first story that comes to mind for instruction in this virtue, but had the tale of the burglarous little girl been available to Aristotle, he might have chosen it to illustrate a fundamental observation about all virtues. According to this ancient Greek philosopher, virtue is a mean between two extremes. In Goldilocks’ vocabulary, “A virtue is something not too much and not too little, it’s just right.” Courage, for example, is the mean between the extreme of cowardice on the one hand and rashness on the other. Neither Goldilocks nor Aristotle had much to say about humility specifically, but we can use the idea of getting things just right or finding the mean between extremes as a fruitful way to explore this virtue.
So, what are the two extremes, the vices, on either side of the virtue of humility? The more obvious vice is pride. Simply put, pride is thinking too much of oneself, of one’s abilities or importance or worth, especially in comparison to others. Pride can be a private sentiment, but it also often seeks to draw the attention of others. The proud “are like the fly on the chariot wheel, crying, ‘See how fast I make it go!’”1 The other extreme is a less obvious vice because it is sometimes mistaken for the virtue of humility and it goes by a less familiar name: pusillanimity. Pusillanimity is thinking too little of oneself; it is a “smallness of soul,” a smallness “that shrinks from noble or arduous tasks.”2
What both pride and pusillanimity have in common is a hyper focus on self which perhaps explains the familiar quotation about humility often misattributed to C.S. Lewis: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”3 What Rick Warren, the author of those familiar words, got right is that the antidote to pride is not less self-confidence, it is less self-consciousness. It is thinking about God and others before ourselves. What Lewis actually said about humility goes even further: “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”4
Why does Lewis attach joy to humility? Perhaps because joy comes with living in harmony with the way we were designed, and we were designed to have an outward focus. We were made first of all to Love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and second to Love our neighbor as ourself. (Perhaps you’ve seen the acronym JOY—Jesus, Others, Yourself.) In contrast, the inward focus of the vices of both pride and pusillanimity robs us of joy.
At the foundation of the virtue of humility is the recognition of our creaturehood. We were created from the dust of the earth. And with the breath of God. Pride forgets that we are dust and makes us into gods, creators and masters of our own destinies for our own glory. Pusillanimity forgets that we are image bearers of God and shrinks from the destiny that is ours as children of the King. Both fail “in co-operating with divine grace to achieve great things for God’s glory” and the good of others. In recognizing our creaturehood, humility gets our position in this world just right and opens us up to the fulfillment and joy of the work of the Spirit in us and through us.
One of our daughters has a figurine in her room of a young girl with arms and hands lowered and outstretched, palms facing upward. Its title is “Blessings.” One of the reasons I have always liked this small figure is that its posture seems to be one of both receiving and offering blessing. It is, in fact, a perfect image of the posture of humility: arms and hands lowered and outstretched both to humbly receive the blessing of God and to humbly offer the fruit of those blessings to others. It is in this posture that we find the antidote to the twin vices of pride and pusillanimity.
This posture of humility is one we try to strengthen at Trinitas. Spending time with others who are older or younger than we are is one good and often enjoyable way to do this, and so we intentionally cultivate relationships across the grade levels. Experiences like our recent trip to Raybrook, an assisted living and nursing care facility, also help to expand our worlds beyond ourselves. During that visit, students performed some of their Fine Arts Night pieces, and we joined the residents in a hymn sing and shared homemade cards and conversation. One parent sent this in response: “What a lovely event! Thank you for offering them this opportunity to share their time with an older generation. When we talked about it that evening I could see both our sons recognizing the value in bringing joy to others—such a character-building experience for them!” And for all of us!