One of the areas of my academic specialisation is positive psychology. It is a branch of psychology that focuses on wellbeing and happiness. My area of focus in positive psychology revolves around the concept of “character strengths.” Character strengths are nothing but what religious traditions have referred to as virtues. These include, among others: wisdom, self-control, forgiveness, hope, altruism, love, spirituality, responsibility, leadership, humility, etc. Psychologists ask, why religious traditions and cultures across the world have highlighted these virtues throughout known history of humanity, praising people who are paragons of these virtues and challenging people who have lacked these virtues? Is it because the practice of these character strengths provides gratification and wellbeing to the individual, and ensures the continuity of the human species?
Humility, the forgotten virtue?
There is an online test for these character strengths, also referred to as “Values in Action” (https://www.viacharacter.org/www/ ). This survey would point out to you your most developed and least developed character strengths. Using the data gathered online, psychologists have attempted to summarise the global situation of developed and undeveloped virtues. According to their finding the least developed virtue globally is humility.
Why has humility become such a rare commodity, as shown in the results of the online survey? Two reasons could be attributed to the low scores in this virtue. There is what psychologists call, “the humility-paradox”: humble people do not acknowledge that they are humble. The moment you recognise that you are humble, you are no more humble. So does this paradox naturally lead to low scores, masking the presence of humility?
On the other hand, could it be true that globally today, arrogance and pride are being celebrated. In the name of self-confidence and self-esteem, achievement and success, influence and affluence, are humility and modesty pushed aside as outdated words of some old-fashioned pastors? To me, the current popularity of Donald Trump in the American politics, at least among some section of people, is a symptom of this. It is a celebration of arrogance and pride in the name of achievement and success! Unfortunately, these displaced values are being sold across the globe, thanks perhaps to the media!
What is Humility? What does Jesus say about Humility?
The readings of today, however, invite us to reflect on this forgotten virtue:
“My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts” (Sir 3:17).
“For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:11).
So, the focus of the Word of God this Sunday is humility. Positive psychology equates humility to modesty as well. What is humility or modesty? How does psychology define humility? Although humility may falsely be equated with a sense of unworthiness and low self-regard, true humility is a rich, multifaceted state that entails an accurate assessment of one’s characteristics, an ability to acknowledge limitations, and a “forgetting of the self”. Modesty, which is related to humility, refers to the moderate estimation of one’s merits or achievements. It also extends into other issues such as propriety in dress and social behaviour.
These themes form an important part of Jesus’ teaching. Besides the gospel text of today (Lk 14), elsewhere Jesus warns us about being pompous in dress and social behaviour: “Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes and love to be greeted respectfully in the market squares, to take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets, who devour the property of widows, and for show offer long prayers. The more severe will be the sentence they receive (Lk 20:46-47). Jesus also invites us to be humble in prayer. In the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who went to the temple to pray, Jesus asks us to imitate the tax collector who prayed in utter humility, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). My own studies have shown that deep contemplative prayer leads individuals to true humility.
Psychological and Spiritual Benefits of humility
Humility helps us acknowledge who we are and this invites us to a constant conversion and growth. Being consistent with the psychology of conversion, in the case of addictive behaviour humility enables the person to start a new journey towards recovery and wholeness. In the 12-steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous, the first two steps state thus:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
In a person with an addictive behaviour humility is particularly noticed in the awareness of having hit “rock bottom”. In the story of the “Lost Son” (Lk 15), this is referred to as “when he came to his senses…” or in other translations, “when he came to himself…” Coming to the true self is humility. This humility enables us to turn to the Greater Power – God! Having come to his true self, the Lost Son (Prodigal Son) begins a journey towards his father! In other words, humility makes us accept our “creatureliness” and turn to the Creator for consolation and true security. We realise our true selves in being at home with the Father; after all, we are in his Image!
The acknowledgement of our creatureliness makes the life of God to flow in us. In this way, the words of Jesus come true: “the one who humbles himself will be exalted”!