Humility

There are times when I am tempted to believe that there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who say they’re humble when they’re not, and those who misunderstand humility altogether and proudly disavow it.

I blame Uriah Heep.

Fred Barnard07Humility is not insincerity. Nor is it the state of being humiliated. Nor is it badmouthing oneself in order to elicit compliments from others. Humility, as Charles Spurgeon said, is “to make a right estimate of one’s self.” Neither puffed up too high nor grovelling too low, but seeing oneself clearly, as one truly is.

“Humility has nothing to do with depreciating ourselves and our gifts in ways we know to be untrue,” David F Wells wrote in Losing Our Virtue. “Even “humble” attitudes can be masks of pride. Humility is that freedom from our self which enables us to be in positions in which we have neither recognition nor importance, neither power nor visibility, and even experience deprivation, and yet have joy and delight. It is the freedom of knowing that we are not in the center of the universe, not even in the center of our own private universe.”

Tranquil center of the universeOh, the relief! Not being the one fixed point around which the universe endlessly turns really takes a lot of pressure off. As the actor Rupert Graves says, “Not being anxious requires a level of humility, doesn’t it? It does, I think. It’s not all about you.” Humility: cheaper than Valium, and with fewer unpleasant side-effects.

But how do we obtain humility? How do we become humble? Sigmund Freud, somewhat unexpectedly, suggests love may be the answer. “Whoever loves becomes humble. Those who love have, so to speak, pawned a part of their narcissism.” If you want to be truly humble, mind you, you might want to think about hocking the whole lot.

According to Phillips Brooks, “The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you what the real smallness of your greatness is.” It’s a matter of getting some perspective and seeing things in proportion.

There are, it seems to me, two parts to humility: seeing oneself clearly, and not focussing on oneself. The first requires a certain level of self-examination, and the second – well, doesn’t. Quite the opposite. As with so many things, a balance must be found.

Fotothek df roe-neg 0006507 014 Eine Frau posiert mit Mantel und Hut vor einem Spiegel bei der "InternationalenWe could do worse than take the example of the ‘well-dressed lady’ who checks herself over in the mirror in the morning and then doesn’t give her appearance another thought for the rest of the day.

The quest for humility is, however, frequently inhibited by one’s culture. Some cultures are all for self-aggrandizement; others mandate a sort of false humility, where the Done Thing is to downplay your abilities and achievements.

Some cultures – take New Zealand, for example – sometimes push this to the point of it being frowned upon to do well, let alone talk about it. Conspicuous success invites hostility. Tall Poppy syndrome, it is called, after the story of Tarquin the Great’s unspoken advice to his son on how to conquer the city of Gabii. Let me tell you, Tarquin Jr wouldn’t know what to do with himself in this, the land of hunchbacked poppies.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema 11As the Maori say, Kāore te kumara e kōrero mō tōna ake reka; the kumara does not say how sweet he is. Be the kumara; don’t be the Heep.

Who Wears the Fur in this House?

Cats pretend to be high-maintenance overlords; dogs pretend to be slavishly devoted minions. Some people fall for this, but do not be deceived! The true state of affairs is revealed by one simple word: poo.

dog poo fairy

A cat, given the requisite freedom, will do (and bury) its poo somewhere you will never see it. A dog, on the other hand, will poo right in the middle of the lawn (and probably not even your lawn) and thus require you to pick it up. This is not the action of a devoted minion.

Aldous Huxley said that “to his dog, every man is Napoleon,” but can you really imagine Napoleon on pooper-scooper duty? Didn’t think so. On the other hand, there is an entire luxury industry based around the poo of a certain kind of cat. I am not making this up.

A dog is like a permanent toddler: they’re bumptious, they freak out if you’re not on hand, and they will always need you to feed, bathe, and clean up after them.

Australian Cattle Dog puppy mascot

Cats, on the other hand, are more like teenagers: a broad degree of independence with occasional outbreaks of frolicksome childhood (when they think you’re not looking) and, of course, they’re always ready to veg on the couch. They are also always ready to devour anything left out on the bench, but at least they don’t have opposable thumbs. The fridge and microwave are safe.

I am, it is true, a cat person. I have had cats for most of the last twenty years. On the other hand, I have also owned a dog, and I think I can say that I was not a great success as a dog owner. Dogs, like children, are high-maintenance and high-energy, which does not fit well with a low-energy person.

If you are considering parenthood, I recommend you try a dog first. The feeding, the excursions, the cleaning up messes you didn’t make, the constant behaviour-correction, the inability to go away for the weekend, the broken nights (children and dogs don’t have inhibitions about volume nor sharing their feelings with the world) – it’s all there. If you can’t hack the canine version, consider carefully before embarking on the human version.

Our dog getting treated like a baby, again.

Cats, on the other hand, only require feeding. They clean up after themselves; they don’t need to be taken for walks in the pouring rain; they don’t mind if you get someone else to feed them for a couple of days (but they’re happy to see you when you get back) and once they’ve learned what behaviour you don’t like, they’re careful not to do it when you’re looking. Cats only emit high-decibel noises in an emergency, and they prefer to spend their nights (and indeed, their days) curled up snoozing on your bed.

And despite the bad press, cats do care. I had a cat once that would climb into the lap of a crying person, rub up against them, emit concerned mews and generally be as consoling as possible. Admittedly, she couldn’t tell the difference between laughing and crying, but it’s the thought that counts.

I think I can safely say Absinthe's a lap cat now.

Cats have also been known to warn their owners of house-fires, attack intruders, or snuggle up to elderly people in rest-homes who are nearing their end. Mind you, dogs are also known to do these sorts of things – especially if they’ve been trained to.

Don’t get me wrong: I like dogs. But until they learn to clean up after themselves, it’s the human who’s the devoted attendant, not the dog.