It started when I was reading some introductory paragraphs in a book about contemplation. The opening section of the book claimed the basic requirement for leading a thoughtful life is humility. My impression is that in our contemporary culture, humility is ranked low among qualities necessary for living a good life. It may have overtones of a world view belonging to the Middle Ages, or in our own day, with the small minority of people who do not choose marriage, children, and mortgage payments but instead join a religious order.
Government and business leaders continuously inform us that we live in a highly competitive world, that we need to get our acts together lest we fall behind (God forbid!) and that any sign of reluctance to become number one is not only a personal failing but unpatriotic. So, many of us keep running harder and harder in order not to end up coming last while the treadmill spins faster and faster. The Great Competition that contributes significantly to turning the wheels of our society appears to us as never-ending. We view the competitive spirit as something having emerged along with the first appearance of life. It is life! The consequence of harbouring such a view is that we require desperate self-improvement and around-the-clock efficiency measures just to stay afloat. Who then is in a frame of mind to sit quietly and think about what really is true, good and beautiful?
It all feels exhausting and takes a toll on the mental health of individuals and communities. If I have already decided that you or I need to be improved upon for the sake of achieving some desired outcome, even before I have any deep knowledge of who you are or I am, I get caught in a cycle of activity that is perpetually trying to change what I have no genuine understanding of. All I know is that it can and therefore needs to be improved. Without a competent knowing of myself and particularly of what drives me, an insidious implication can attach itself to my quest for self-improvement: I’m somehow, in some profound way, not enough. What originally may have started out to be my description of my own growth pattern becomes a compulsion. I must be more. Who I am, who you are, are considerations superseded by who we must be. We must be winners. The driving force of change in our lives shifts from a natural unfolding of abilities to a fear of losing a race.
In the past fifteen years, the discoveries of neuroscience, specifically of mirror neurons, and the work of scientists such as the primatologist, Frans de Waal, offer mounting evidence that neither human beings nor certain mammalian species are hard-wired for competition. To the contrary, the rapidly accumulating knowledge points to an empathic, co-operative predisposition in social mammals and humans.
It was at this point in my musings that the deeper meanings of the word humility began to stir. Thanks to a good dictionary, I discovered that humility, humus and human are all words that come from a common ancestor that means “earth, ground, soil”. The history of those words suggest that we humans are in fact beings of the earth, upon which we all stand, work, sleep, dream and to which we will all one day return–with the hope, perhaps, that our lives will prove to be of some good to those who live after us. In that respect, we are all the same. All of us are simply one individual among many, among billions. To the degree that we appreciate our common humanity and our common evolution as a species, we counterbalance the strong sense of ourselves as separate individuals. It softens the sometimes rigid boundaries between you and me that make our differences appear greater and more threatening than they actually are. With a bit of humility, we are likely to find our exaggerated emphasis of difference is like a fruit falling to the ground, rotting and decomposing back into and nourishing the soil. This humbling cycle of life and death and life again, which reminds us that we humans are limited and united by our earthy embodiment, has, since the misty beginnings of history, provided a ground upon which we organize our lives . Awakening to the word human helps us remember the earth and invites us to join with its other residents with whom we share a home. Such a mood may be experienced as a home-coming.
As an occasional gardener, I know that when I make compost, I am imitating nature’s making of humus, returning what is no longer living to the earth to become nutrient for new life. I find that counselling is a similar undertaking, in which two persons talk about the aspects of one of their lives that seem to have become stuck and in some way deadened. Humility, that sense of a shared life, no matter how different and isolated we may feel at the moment, seems a sensible ongoing aim of counselling in its task of renewal.