Opening Words: Every Day, Caroline Joy Adams
We are given a thousand waking moments
A thousand opportunities to learn, to grow, to choose
Thus, in as many of those moments as you can,
Choose understanding and calmness rather than anger…
Gratitude rather than envy….
Compassion rather than judgment….
Awareness rather than denial….
Loving thoughts, words, and action
Over those that have the power to hurt…
And in this way,
Moment by Moment by Moment
We shall create harmony, healing and peace
Within ourselves…and for each other.
Thoreau’s introductory comments in his famous book, Walden, about his two-year and two-month experiment of living by himself in the woods, in a cabin he built with his own hands, provides a starting place for some reflections about humility.
Born on July 12, 1817, he moved into the cabin on July 4, 1845, when he was a week shy of his 28th birthday. He died on May 6, 1862 at age 45.
Thoreau’s title page of Walden: Where I Lived, & What I Lived for, says:
“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”
The naturalist, John Burroughs, says, “Thoreau pitched his Walden in this key; he claps his wings and gives forth a clear, saucy, cheery, triumphant note … the book is certainly the most delicious piece of brag in literature … It is a challenge and a triumph, and has a morning freshness and élan…” –
Thoreau said: “I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life, which some would call impertinent, though they do not appear to me at all impertinent, but, considering the circumstances, very natural and pertinent.”
Impertinence is a lack of humility – it’s about arrogance and insolence.
He not only built his little cabin by himself, but he kept track of every half-cent he spent on it: $28.12 ½ cents.
The solitude and simplicity of that little cabin symbolizes the ultimate solitude of our own thoughts, ideas and beliefs.
In the opening lines of Walden he says, “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.”
His reference to ‘civilized life’ is ironic, of course, given the fact that we are being held hostage by the insanity of out-of-control automatic and semi-automatic gun ownership with 100-round ammunition clips.
In 1854 Thoreau talked about the ways in which life in Concord and beyond was not so civilized, except on the surface, in the sense of being well-mannered and polite – he pointed to the morally reprehensible institution of slavery, and the recent U.S. invasion of Mexico to annex territory now known as Texas.
Thoreau concludes the opening chapter by advising his readers not to go out and try to change the world once they have thrown off the chains of tradition and materialism. The beginning of all real reform, he says, is the perfection of each individual. Once an individual has critically observed his shortcomings, his first step in reforming his life should be to turn inward, as Thoreau did when he went to the woods:
“I went to I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it…”
Each of us has a task in life, Thoreau says, and that task is essentially to discover what he, alone, is capable of being.
That’s the spiritual quest – not to come up with answers to the theological questions, all of which boil down to ‘how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.’
The spiritual quest is an internal journey to discover our own potential for spiritual perfection, which I take to be ‘feeling at home in the world because I feel at home in myself and in companionship with others.’
“Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections,” is the way Stanley Kunitz put it in his poem The Layers.
Since it is never accomplished fully, this quest is a life-long task which is actualized in moments, here and there, but cannot be held…which is where humility comes to play.
Thoreau explained: “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”
Life, he pointed out, was not so civilized – it lacked the moral development a civilized people possess.
Our lack of civilized restrictions on the sale, ownership and use of certain weapons is the moral equivalent of slavery. We are in bondage to it. It is a menacing arrogance forced upon us by the N.R.A. and the gun manufacturing industry that finances it.
To refrain from expressing it might be mistaken as a kind of humility. It isn’t humility. To refrain from speaking out about it, now, is a kind of intimidation by those who have taken us hostage, holding guns at our heads.
So, where does genuine humility come in?
Humility is a strange thing: if you think you have it, you don’t, because if you think you have it, then you are naturally proud to have such an important virtue.
There’s an interesting anecdote about Henry Augustus Rowland, professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University, who was once called as an expert witness at a trial. During cross-examination a lawyer demanded, “What are your qualifications as an expert witness in this case?”
The normally modest and retiring professor replied quietly, “I am the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion.”
Later a friend well acquainted with Rowland’s disposition expressed surprise at the professor’s uncharacteristic answer. Rowland’s said, “Well, what did you expect me to do? I was under oath.”
I’m reminded of the story of the rabbi who was overheard praying by himself in the temple: “O Lord, I am nothing…”
He didn’t realize that the sexton was cleaning up and overheard him. In a little while the cantor came into the sanctuary and prayed, “O Lord, I am nothing…”
Thinking they had left, the sexton bowed and prayed, “O Lord, I am nothing…” The rabbi and cantor overheard him and the rabbi turned to the cantor and said, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
If you think you need a bit more humility, then you have it, but as soon as you acknowledge that you have it, you lose it. Humility is a strange and contradictory virtue.
But, then again, maybe it’s not all that complicated. But the point is made.
Unitarian minister Robert Weston stated it simply: “There is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.”
“There is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.”
The opposite of humility is arrogance, there is at least a bit of arrogance in every belief.
As Ed and I were planning this service and we were looking for appropriate hymns he said, “I spent quite a bit of time looking for the right hymns and it occurred to me that Unitarians are not big on humility.”
Robert Weston’s assertion that ‘there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief’ was part of his point about cherishing our doubts. But we have to be careful about cherishing our doubts, since most of us are here, in part at least, because of our doubts about our religion of origin – Catholic, Jewish, Protestant…or the anti-religious position taken by many of our parents which we absorbed.
I can’t say that I ‘cherish my doubts,’ but I do cherish the freedom to express my doubts, which is to say, the freedom to question what I’ve been taught or told. I cherish the freedoms we have by virtue of being citizens of America, and more specifically, the freedom of the pulpit invested in our Unitarian Universalist clergy.
In both cases that freedom must be balanced by a serious sense of responsibility.
To Robert Weston’s point, isn’t there a fine line between cherishing one’s doubts and being proud of not believing things that other people seem to believe, and thereby being ‘just a little bit superior,’ like church lady on Saturday Night Live?
When is doubt a kind of arrogance?
Weston says that ‘doubt is the attendant of truth.’ Does the doubt he’s talking about include one’s ability to doubt one’s own beliefs, one’s own thoughts and ideas?
It’s easy to doubt the validity of someone else’s beliefs.
In 1980 I spent a month in what we now call ‘the former Soviet Union,’ meeting with peace groups. I quickly felt the weight of propaganda and one day I was talking to one of the participants and I said, “The thing is that in my country I can stand on the street corner and rant and rave against President Reagan.” He quipped, “Well, we’re not so different – I can stand on the street corner and rant and rave about Reagan, too.”
As I grow older, when I speak I can detect the uncomfortable taste of arrogance in my tone of voice.
When I listen, I feel humbled, simply by virtue of being trusted with another person’s cares, concerns and their acknowledgement of the imperfections or wounds that have moved them to do that kind of sharing, to be vulnerable.
On the other hand, I’ve experienced first hand what Robert Weston called ‘those that would silence doubt are (who) are filled with fear; their houses are built on shifting sands.’
The most far-reaching experience of expressing my doubts happened to me when I 21 years old, a senior in college and the minister of the Congregational Church in which I was an active member asked me to consider seminary—to think seriously about becoming a minister.
I thought about it, and asked to meet with him to talk about those thoughts. We had a very brief life-altering conversation.
I told him about my doubts as they related to the church’s stated beliefs, as summarized in the Apostle’s Creed, which you may recall (since I’ve talked about it before) is when I was accused of being a Unitarian, a word he pronounced with more than a little touch of disdain.
Getting right to the point, I referred to the main points in the Apostle’s Creed – that Jesus was ‘born of a virgin, was crucified and descended into hell, rose from the dead and sits at the right hand of the Father,’ I asked if he believed those things in a literal sense. He said that he ‘most certainly did.’
I said something like, “That’s what I was afraid of.” Then I asked if I was expected to believe them literally, explaining that I thought of them as poetic…as metaphor.
Clearly he felt threatened, pointing his finger at me and saying, “You sound like a Unitarian,” as if that was a direct affront to his sensibilities and disqualified me from the ministry.
As I continue on my journey in our ministry, which I started 43 years ago, I see a sign that says, “Rest area, five months ahead.”
I know it’s not ‘the end of the road,’ but no matter how you slice it, it’s the end of the major chapter of my life. So I find myself looking at the scenery with a different pair of eyes, wondering if I’ve missed something along the way, afraid I’ve failed to notice some important details.
Regarding the question of humility and arrogance I would simply say that no one could serve in ministry, the priesthood, the rabbinate, without feeling its humbling effects. It’s true for all of us who have dealt with so much suffering, death and despair. It’s not about competence in this work, it’s about something that sinks deep down ‘where the spirit meets the bone.’
What looks like arrogance is, generally speaking, just the need to speak with some semblance of authority. For some of my interfaith colleagues it’s about tradition, or it’s about the idea that people need to be told what to believe – a position for which I have increasing respect – God knows we need all the help we can get!
When I was 21 I knew what I didn’t believe, but I didn’t know the difference between literal truth and the deeper truths that have to do with spiritual insights, the truth of intuition that doesn’t require justification, the truth found in poetry, the truth in a magnificent morning sunrise when the sky is on fire; the truth in a baby’s smile – the miracle of it all.
Like you, I’ve come to understand humility only from my personal experience.
To close, I’ll share a little poem that touches the heart of humility, by Robert Frost
“The rain to the wind said,
You push and I’ll pelt.’
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay lodged–though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt.”
― Robert Frost