We have a gym on campus, and some of us have gotten really strong because of it. We all trust that exercising will make us stronger. There is a direct effect to the cause of working out. Similarly, being humble has a direct effect on our personal strength. Just as we can doubt the benefits of exercising, we can also doubt the benefits of being humble. This is because we perceive humility as passive meekness. This, however, this is not humility. Humility is freeing, and it makes us beautiful and strong. There are three ways humility can be contrasted with passive weakness. Humility is not a low self-esteem or a despairing mindset, humility is not going where the wind takes you, and humility is not not stepping on people’s toes. Humility is a strength.
Humility is not low self-esteem. We all encounter personal weakness, insufficiencies and sin. The passively meek person is surprised by these encounters, and refuses to acknowledge her gifts because she has come upon such weakness. The truly humble person is not surprised by her weakness because she has already personally chosen to accept that she is a creature. In Humility the Wellspring of Virtue Dietrich von Hildebrand describes “that blissful assent to our creatureliness and our nothingness, our entire dependence on God, must be given freely and expressly: it must be, precisely, a personal act par excellence” (41). The passively meek person closes herself off if she loses her temper at someone. The humble person quickly asks for forgiveness.
Humility is not going where the wind takes you. Those who are passively meek are afraid of any type of domination over themselves. We have feelings and appetites that aren’t ordered, but each of us has the capacity to order them. A woman struggling with passive meekness is afraid to take command of her passions when she experiences attraction to another man. Her passions say, “go throw yourself at that man” and so she does. In this experience she believes that taking command of her affections is not humbly submitting to her true self. The truly humble woman is strong. She experiences temptations to have sex before she is married, but she is able to have dominion over her affective life and order it to love. When she experiences passions that aren’t ordered to true love of her beloved she gently commands her passions as a mother directs the passions of a candy loving child. With a confident, loving and understanding voice the woman says, “no, now is not the proper time.” The humble woman has this dominion.
Humility is not not stepping on people’s toes. Those who are passively meek are afraid to take charge in a group of people. The truly humble person is not afraid to step in for the sake of a good. The risk is taken not to gain power over others, but for the sake of goodness and freedom for all. I see this strength in the captain of my futsal team. She has a gift for seeing what our team needs, adapting, and communicating. Our first game, many of us were passively meek when it came to who would sub in and when. Our captain saw this and took more control of the subbing so we had more freedom in our playing. It’s a recreational league, but she brings us together at half time to talk about how we could improve. If she had a despairing mindset about herself she would ignore her gifts of leadership and our team would not have improved and come together as we have. She could have been passively meek, and refused to use her gifts because she was afraid of stepping on our toes. The strength of her humility has helped unify our team.
I want to end by reflecting upon the witness of two people who are examples of the strength of humility. My friends got married and eagerly awaited their first child. The first years they suffered many miscarriages, but refused to use IVF, surrogacy, or other treatments that would lead to the conception of a child outside of the sexual act within their marriage. These treatments seemed to promise them the life they wanted to receive, but they refused them. One afternoon with my friend, I asked her how she was doing. Shortly into our conversation she shared with me her struggle with being jealous of other mothers who have children. Her words held no bitterness about her situation, only contrition. IVF would give her a child, but it would not respect her husband or the child. More than a child, she wanted to love. This proved difficult, but her humility before the greatest value of love is a sign of great strength.
We may label passive meekness as humility, but true humility is not for the faint of heart. Humility is an inner strength. In confidence we take dominion in the right moments for the sake of love. Above all we need patience and perseverance. Those who begin working out by three hours at the gym and weights beyond their strength don’t get strong they get hurt. Humility grows in us gradually and in stages.