I have often pondered the meaning of the word “humility.” I have frequently experienced times when the bubble of self-importance I have inflated for myself bursts and I am brought back down to earth with a resounding thud. And paradoxically, these are times of the greatest learning, times when I feel stripped of all the false assumptions I have conjured up about myself and am left bare to meet the true me face to face. And this me is not an unworthy, lowly scumbag, but a me who, despite my limitations, can transcend them to receive greatness. At this point I am teachable; I recognize my limitations and smallness, which gives me the freedom to accept greatness. To me, this is humility.
I found another definition of humility that resonates with the definition I have come to understand.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that humility is an appreciation of oneself, one’s talents, skills, and virtues. It is not meekness or self deprecating thought, but the effacing of oneself to something higher. Humility is not to think lowly of oneself, but to appreciate the self one has received. In recognition of the mysteries and complexities of life, one becomes humbled to the awesomeness one is and what one can achieve. He also said that true humility is the consciousness of standing in the presence of greatness.
In this village on Lake Onega in the north of Russia, I was made to feel very small, I fretted and felt like a lowly scumbag, so I asked for clarity. And I was rewarded with humility. In his article “On Humility,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks goes on to say, “Humility — true humility — is one of the most expansive and life-enhancing of all virtues. It does not mean undervaluing yourself. It means valuing other people. It signals a certain openness to life’s grandeur and the willingness to be surprised, uplifted, by goodness wherever one finds it.”
So when Step 46. I Must Be Small To Be Great says, “Allow yourself to be small, and you will experience that greatness is with you and that greatness is part of you,” I think to myself, this seems like a paradox, but it is not, it is humility.
This was my experience after feeling small.
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