A story is told about a man who asked his rabbi why people couldn't see the face of God. What had happened that they could no longer reach high enough to see God?
The rabbi, a very old man, had experienced a lot in his life and was very wise. "My son," he said, "that is not the way it is at all. You cannot see the face of God because there are so few who can stoop that low. How sad this is, but it is the truth. Learn to bend, to bow, to kneel and stoop and you will be able to see God face-to-face."
This story reminds us of another saying. The door to the kingdom of God is exactly as high as you are when you walk on your knees. If you are standing tall, full of pride, you can't get through.
Meanwhile, in the marketplace, the opposite behavior is promoted. You can't get ahead, we're told, unless you promote yourself, take center stage, and claim all the credit for success, even if this means climbing on the backs of your co-workers.
It's not just the culture that has a problem with humility. Many of us still equate it with self-hatred and self-disgust. But as a slogan from Alcoholics Anonymous puts it, "The challenge is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less often." Humility means not putting yourself either above or below others; it means not thinking about your position on a scale.
Humility comes naturally to some people but usually it needs to be learned. We become humble by being around humble people and by consciously acknowledging that we are not #1. Here are some ways to practice.
- Kneel. This is such a simple gesture yet few of us do it outside of a religious service. Say your prayers on your knees a few times this week. See how a humble posture reinforces your intention.
- Consciously get out of the way. A musician was asked how he could play so beautifully. "I have splendid music, a splendid instrument, a splendid bow. All I have to do is bring them together and get out of the way." Every teacher or speaker knows what this means — and how difficult it can be to do. We have to put aside our need for attention so that the bright light of what we are presenting is what people see.
- Don't make a fuss over fame or failure. Those who are attached to the roar of the crowd or the agony of their defeats are imprisoned in their own dramas. When honors come, accept them gratefully without fanfare. When you are ignored, let the feeling of unimportance pass calmly. Think of both reward and rejection as similar to a wind that comes and then passes.
- Many of the great spiritual masters practiced what could be called "downward mobility." Jesus, for example, encouraged his disciples to create a community of equals. After they argued over who was the greatest, he knelt before them and washed their feet. "I am among you," he said another time, "as one who serves." Strive to create the conditions in the world that will lead to a this kind of community. In daily life, this means working to break down the barriers that separate people and put the rich over the poor, the able-bodied over the disabled, the literate over the illiterate, the strong over the weak. Reread the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 3 - 11) for more specifics.
- Walk lightly upon the earth. The words "humility" and "human" both come from "humus" or earth. With humility, we accept our place as one among many others. When we recognize that we are no more important than those others, we take no more than our small share. We approach even the most menial tasks joyfully. We accept that we are only here to be of service to God's great creation.