Somewhat paradoxically, it takes a lot of ego-strength to be humble--to let others go first, to take the last place, to "wash feet," and to allow others to get the praise, recognition, and accolades. We struggle with this. Not because we are wicked but because our sense of self-worth is built upon praise, compliments, attention, respect and popularity. Thus we engage in what psychologists have called "excessive reassurance seeking," constantly taking the temperature of our social network to verify that we are being noticed, approved of, and included.
As I noted in that earlier post, this struggle for significance is made even more difficult if you lack what this culture defines as "valuable," "worthy," and "significant." We all want to be valued by others but we can struggle if we don't think we have anything of value to offer, share or show to others.
This brings me to the relationship between privilege and humility. And the point I want to make about this is how humility is often the privilege of the privileged.
Let me try to illustrate what I'm talking about.
It is easy for me, in social situations, to not attend to my reputation or my social presentation because, in many ways, my reputation is already well secured. People often kid me about just how shabbily I can dress. My friend Kyle calls it my "homeless chic."
That casualness can give me an air of relaxed non-pretentiousness. But there is a dark side to this. I can get away with this look because of my privilege and reputation. I am a male. I am white. I am a Doctor. And I have an established reputation of success on my campus. I can afford to look like a hippie or a homeless person because of who I am.
Put simply, because my reputation precedes me I can look like I don't care about my reputation. I can be inconspicuous because I'm not inconspicuous. People know who I am.
In short, I can be casual, relaxed and self-forgetful--I can be "humble"--because I'm privileged.
Here's another way to say all this. I can take "the last place"--and pat myself on the back for being so Jesus-like for doing so--much more easily than others because I'm already in "the first place." My ego-strength to be "humble" derives from my pre-existing privilege. I can be negligent, unconcerned, and nonchalant in regards to respect, praise and attention--be humble about it all--because I already have respect, praise and attention.
In this sense humility is similar to charity. It's not charity if I'm giving out of my excess. And it's not humility if I'm constantly operating out of a storehouse of social and reputational capital.
Consequently, I've come to the conclusion that a lot my "humility" isn't really humility at all. I don't think I have a clue about humility.
All this goes to a contrast in my mind between a deep versus cosmetic spirituality. Most of engage in a cosmetic spirituality. We tweak our prayer life. We volunteer to do the dishes. We show up on weekends to help with a ministry project. We try to be more patient and kind at work. And, to be clear, all this is good, good work.
But in my examen of my humility I've come to realize that most if not all of the cosmetic things I've done in order to be more humble have been built atop things like my privilege, success and reputation. Which means I haven't, as of yet, really gotten around to the deep work of humility. And what that sort of work might entail is a very scary prospect.