How Gratitude Sparks Humility

Humility is an elusive virtue. As the adage goes: as soon as you think you have it, you’ve lost it. But, just like any virtue, it is something that must be cultivated. It must be practiced. So how do you cultivate humility without losing it? This is something that I’ve been thinking through during my work with Housing For New Hope.

It’s funny, in the process of creating and sending out this survey on the lay-person’s perception of homelessness, before even receiving any responses, I am predicting the frustrating “close-minded” answers of people who I am predicting aren’t being charitable enough to our neighbors experiencing homelessness. How dare these imaginary people neglect to consider the external and uncontrollable factors that have led to a person’s unfortunate circumstances? How dare they chalk the cause of homelessness exclusively up to poor decision-making and sheer lack of will? Don’t they understand the systemic problems underlying the housing crisis? I am now contriving imaginary situations about which to be frustrated. My criticism knows no bounds.

Here’s a more realistic event of my arrogance. The other day, I was driving and came to a stoplight. I looked to my right and was immediately filled with frustration. How can it be, that a simple bumper sticker could so drastically knock me from my Bon Iver induced state of bliss? It just so happens that my kryptonite (or one of them) is the punisher slogan with a blue line for one of the skull’s dripping teeth. (For a very brief history of this slogan, visit this link). My initial reaction was to roll my eyes and consider all of the ways this person embodied the ideology of this bumper sticker: How dare he blur the lines between law enforcement and vigilante justice? How does this person treat strangers at the grocery store? Could I be driving next to a neo-nazi? (Remember my boundless criticism.) However, in a brief moment of repose, I realized that I wasn’t being fair to this person, at all. I wasn’t taking any time to think about the place from where this kind of speech may have originated. In the same way that I would want my imaginary survey participants to consider the external factors leading to homelessness, why wouldn’t I do the same concerning this man’s bumper sticker? The impetus for placing such a divisive bumper sticker on your vehicle comes from a much more complex set of experiences and backgrounds than I considered in that fleeting moment of frustration. I realized then, that I would never be able to truly enter into a positive and constructive relationship with this person if I was exclusively critical of them based on a singular outward expression. I needed to humbly consider this person’s humanity—their limits and particularities.

I believe it was Cicero that once said, “Gratitude is the mother of all virtues.” How, then, might gratitude spark the cultivation of humility? Perhaps it is gratitude for things that don’t seem, at first, beneficial—that seem limiting. Like the small, mono-racial town you might have grown up in, or the limited exposure to diverse opinions, that helps one become humble. Perhaps it is through a recognition of our limits that we learn what being a human is really about. If we neglect to be grateful for these limits, and the limits of those around us, we can tend to move forward in a dehumanizing fashion, forgetting to consider the humanity of those around us; those who might knock us from our Bon Iver induced states of bliss.

In this seasonal time of reentering the worlds from which we may have moved away, and as we gather around family and friend’s dinner tables—whether you think your uncle and sister-in-law is too “woke” or not “woke” enough—may we all seize opportunities to be grateful for our own experiences, and the experiences of those that sit across the table from us. And may we remember to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and show grace before we honk our horn…I mean, spew the unconsidered quip to our uncle’s comment about COVID.

Now, this is not to say that I don’t believe in human agency. I do believe that people should be responsible for their actions, even in light of the environments in which they have been formed. But if we are to hold firm to that principle, it should be tempered with an equally, if not more important consideration for that person’s limits and humanity. I’ll end this time of reflection with a question posed by author and activist, bell hooks, “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time, remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” As humans living amongst other humans, it seems this is the tension into which we are called to dwell. I hope this reflection helps me to be less critical, and more charitable, of the future responses that I may encounter in this survey. May my gratitude lead to humility, and my humility, to compassion.