FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
September 24, 2001
Quote: When God gives us a gift, God expects a certain return.
In his inaugural address, Nelson Mandela suggests that false humility hurts us as much as false pride. His words: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that frightens us.
We ask ourselves, `Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesnt serve the world. Theres nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people wont feel insecure around you. We are born to manifest the glory of God that is within us.
Its not just in some of us. Its in everyone, and, as we let our light shine, we consciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Thats an important, Gospel corrective to our common misunderstanding about humility. Spontaneously we tend to think of humility as self-effacement, self-depreciation, as never blowing our own horn, as always first waiting to be asked before we step forward to offer our gifts. We identify humility with non-assertiveness.
Theres a lot of truth in that but, as someone once said, a heresy is something thats 98 per cent correct. The other two per cent is what hangs us.
Thats the case here. Humility is, in fact, a healthy self-effacement and non-assertion. But then it becomes complicated. Self-effacement is not self-depreciation and indeed theres nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people wont feel insecure around you. Why not?
Because our gifts and talents are meant to help others, just as their gifts are meant to help us. To hide our light under a bushel basket serves no one others, God, ourselves. Thats precisely what Jesus warns us about in the parable of the talents.
When God gives us a gift, God expects a certain return. To hide our talents, as the parable makes clear, is perilous to self and not very pleasing to the one who gave those gifts.
We already know this through experience, painful experience. When we self-depreciate in the name of humility, or for any other reason, we might fool people around us into thinking this is virtue, but we never fool ourselves. Whenever we hide our light, we generate rage, bitterness and envy inside of ourselves.
When we play small, however moral and noble the intent, another part of us begins to enrage. Why? Because what we are doing fundamentally belies who we are. We are in the image of God, special, unique, fabulous, gorgeous, talented. When that part of us, that deep part, is bullied by a good moral idea gone awry (humility gone false) it does not acquiesce in calm and serenity. It enrages, becomes bitter, jealous and frustrated at being forced to live a lie.
My own dad was not an educated man but, like many others whose souls have been forged in the desert of the Prairies where a harsh beauty and a lonely isolation give everyone sufficient time in the wilderness, he was a man of wisdom.
One of his quips ran this way: Whenever you see someone whos always angry, take a look at that person. Because its always someone whos very bright, with lots of talent. . . . Its just that he or she hasnt found a way of offering that in a way that people can receive it.
Its easy to misread this parable, thinking that the king arbitrarily punishes the servant who hid his talent. My dads angle suggests that the punishment is not arbitrary but intrinsic, like a hangover to drunkenness.
The beatings the parable talks about are what we do to ourselves whenever we hide our light under a bushel basket because one part of us then finds it intolerable to be in a situation wherein we are all talented-up with nowhere to go.
What is genuine humility? Real humility self-effaces, but does not self-depreciate; it is not assertive, but it does not slink away in unhealthy passivity; it is not showy and exhibitionist, but it does not hide its light either.
We are humble when we live in the face of the fact that we are both dependent and interdependent. We are not ipsum esse subsistens, self-sufficient Being, God, nor the centre of earth, nor intended to be that centre.
But each of us is a child of God, fabulous, unique, talented, asked to set forth our gifts on the table of life, as a gracious host might put food on the dinner table. Nelson Mandela is right, there is nothing enlightened, or God-serving, in false humility. Moreover, as Jesus parable of the talents suggests, hiding ones talents doesnt produce happiness either.