Thursday, December 29, 2011

Humble Me O Lord

For those who don't know, "Humble Me O Lord" is a song...but it fits in with my philosophical thought for the day.

As discussed earlier on this blog, the words "humble/servile/gentle/noble" belong to the old European feudal system and describe ways people from different classes were expected to behave. None of the feudal class definitions really works for Americans. None of them should work for Americans. Therefore, although I'll accept the twentieth century's shift from using "tender" to using "gentle" to describe the way one touches tender, wounded flesh, I don't think "humble," "servile," or "noble" are the best words to describe anything any American does.

That said, I turned to some end-of-year reflections. Where has this year gone, and what have I done with it? Not much. What have I done with the last seven years? Not much. I don't want to see the word "depressed" in comments, since I inherited that cheerful Irish gene, but these have been locust years, financially, professionally, socially.

My immediate family always used to check in and describe our days outside of home to each other, and we adopted a catch phrase from Dr. Seuss: "Not a thing went right that day." Well, viewed in retrospect, in terms of accomplishments, not a thing went right those seven years.

I am, believe it or not, a person who has occasionally done things right. Up to the year 2005 my life story was full of accomplishments. Employed since age 17, published writer at 18, honors student, started business (while physically unfit for regular job) at 21, foster mother (of a teenager) at 22; many professional successes included writing a textbook, writing and reading several audiotapes in a valuable series, and editing a reference book that's gone into reprints, but most rewarding was helping my eventual husband go from bankruptcy to wealth. Then he died, his (illegal alien, scam artist, suspected serial murderer) ex escaped with the money, and nothing I've done since then has worked.

This is not because I'm doing anything differently than I did during my successful years. Nothing I'm aware of, and nothing anyone else is aware of either. Of course there are lots of people who don't agree with the whole idea of (pick one or more) being Christian, being Green, being fiscally conservative, being a feminist, being a self-accepting introvert, being a writer, being an independent professional writer who lives on an organic farm with free-range cats. Then, if and whenever they reach a consensus on whether I'm too liberal or too conservative, there are the people who don't agree with me politically. (Yes, I do have a consistent political identity; it's just not attached to any twentieth-century party label.) But we can't blame the Locust Years on any of those things, because I was just as much all of those things during my good years too.

So then there are the people, who think they are Christians, who say, "Maybe God is trying to help you to 'be humble.'" Whatever that means to them. I have no idea. I don't think they have a clear idea, either. But I would like to share some thoughts about how we can help people to do the things that seem to be vaguely associated with the vague, subjective concept of "humility as a Christian virtue."

Bear in mind here that the only good, solid, workable definition of this idea I've ever heard or read was C.S. Lewis's concept of the "truly humble" man who would not remind anyone of Charles Dickens' con artist Uriah Heep, but would impress you as "a cheerful fellow who was really interested in what you had to say to him." In my dialect "fellow" most often refers to a male person who, though young or younger than you are, seems more mature and respectable than a "guy," but nevertheless I think I can picture the kind of person Lewis had in mind.

The gender-neutral adjective I tend to use for that kind of person is "gracious." This is the wo/man who's not preoccupied with defending his/her ego, who is actually trying to make someone else comfortable. Introverts do that better than anyone else does...when we, ourselves, feel comfortable.

It is not possible to act graciously while you are in any doubt that the other person respects you. You can either play along with their low estimate of you, which does not serve either your Highest Good or theirs, or else reject and defy their judgment of you, which is a little better than accepting it, for you and for them, but doesn't leave much room for real graciousness. You can fit into a stereotyped definition like Don Marquis's "always a lady in spite of" people's hostility; you can, like Florence King, act polite while feeling, and after a certain age admitting you feel, frankly hostile and contemptuous toward other people. This social persona has served many Southerners well--it's the way we're traditionally supposed to behave toward Northerners. I learned it from my father at a very early age, and it works well for me. Gracious, however, it's not.

I don't enjoy the feelings of dislike or contempt for other people. Introverts are often accused of having these feelings toward people in general, but we don't; creative solitude is a positive pleasure. What I naturally feel toward people in general is nothing at all. They exist; that's not a source of emotional feeling. Good will is a spiritual practice, not an emotion.

Christians are often exhorted to try to practice good will as it were in a vacuum, regardless of how other people react to us. We can always try that. There's no harm in trying. However, one of the many teachings of Jesus that tends to be ignored by most so-called Christian teachers today is, "Cast not your pearls before swine." If people are themselves too mean, hateful, spiteful, bigoted, and obnoxious to respond to acts of good will, then our acts of good will must inevitably become emotionally detached, condescending, somewhat arrogant...and distinctly not gracious. I'm talking about a vague emotional quality that we don't even perceive through our conscious senses, but I'm sure you know what I mean.

I suspect that a lot of introverts don't behave more graciously than they do because they've encountered hostile reactions in the past. I remember reminding myself, "They're older than you, they were here first, this is their office/church/town not yours," so many times that now I forget to remind myself when I'm the oldest person, the one with most seniority, or even the hostess.

Of course, right now, after each of the last seven years has brought more losses and fewer gains than the one before, I'm running on fumes when it comes to social or professional energy. When people in a small town know that you're not in the "trash and welfare cheat" class, and you're penniless, your social life becomes very unrewarding. In my part of the world, polite people try to pretend you're not there--you make them feel guilty, or afraid that your bad luck might be contagious. Trashy people, who really are filled with hate, feel more confident in displaying their nastiness to you. It's not a situation anyone would voluntarily get into. I have no safe place to reveal my pearls; all I ever meet these days, in real life, are "swine."

I can still practice good will as a discipline. I can't experience myself as gracious in real-world interactions with other people. I can't feel pleasure in anyone else's company. I feel hypersensitive to insults; when some web designer wants to show off some innovative idea that only works properly on the latest model computers, I rationally know that this is just the tiresome way many web designers habitually behave, but I feel personally insulted. I have wonderful memories of time spent with other people who were definitely not looking for an opening for a verbal jab or slap, but were in fact enjoying my company, appreciating my contribution, even working synergistically with me as a team...and that was long ago. The people with whom I interact in real life, currently, are constantly finding ways to let me know that they live in a dog-eat-dog world in which they'd prefer that I were dead and out of their way. I don't feel love and good will for people like that. I feel for them, emotionally, exactly what they feel for me. If I don't act out everything I feel in as blatant and obnoxious ways as they do, that's because I'm a more mature and enlightened person--note the dislike and contempt!

I would like to believe that God can make me gracious. I'm sure the people who utter the little digs about "being humble" would like it if I could be gracious.

So I recommend that they pray fervently that God will make it possible for me to be gracious again. Of course, if they want to get more specific than that, the words and mental pictures they need to use should involve my experiencing more success, more money, and more prestige.

Humble me, O Lord. Make me wealthy, so that I can share with others. Make me admired and sought after, so that I can be kind to others. Make me overprivileged, so that I can be gracious.