The Humble Heart

Jewish man praying beside a window in a posture of humility, making a connection with the divine

Rewards for the Humble

It’s a common theme in folklore, the youngest brother or sister who makes good after the older ones fail, or the reviled stepsister who earns riches through her compassion, industriousness, and obedience, while her lazy and disrespectful sibling earns beatings or tarring or death.

In “Mother Holle,” a Brother’s Grimm tale, the ill-treated girl is sent by her stepmother to fetch a spindle she dropped down the well, so she jumps in. She lands, though, not in the water, but on a grassy knoll. Seeing a meadow of flowers, she walks toward it.

On the way, she passes by a baker’s oven. The bread inside calls to her to take it out, for it has finished baking, so the girl removes the loaves and sets them aside to cool. Then she continues on her way.

Soon she passes an apple tree. The tree begs her to shake it so it might be relieved of its fruit. Happily, the girl complies, though the fruit falls painfully on her head. Still, she works until all the apples have fallen, then gathers them into a pile and sets off again.

She arrives at Mother Holle’s house. Mother Holle rushes out to greet the girl and invites her to stay, but she must work hard. Most important is that she shake all quilts until the loose feathers have all come out, for as they fall over the balcony, they become snow in the world.

The girl doesn’t mind. She is industrious and completes her tasks without complaint, shaking the quilts thoroughly. Mother Holle is quite pleased and treats her well.

After a time, the girl becomes homesick, so Mother Holle rewards her by covering her entire body with gold, then sends her home.

As we can, humble obedience brings reward.

The Perils of Pride

But the story is not over, for the stepsister, too, must have a turn.

So our golden girl goes home. Her stepmother sees her brilliant sheen and, in her covetousness, wants the same for her own daughter. Though the daughter is not excited about jumping into a well, her mother makes her do it. She lands near the same field, passes the same oven and the tree, but instead of helping them, she says, “What do I care?” and walks off without a backward glance.

Mother Holle welcomes her as she had the other child, and the stepsister promises to work hard, but that determination lasts only a day or so before she gets bored and tired. She cuts corners, burns the meals, and gives the quilts but a few desultory flicks.

Wearying of the nasty girl, Mother Holle sends her home, but her parting gift is not gold, but tar. The horrified stepsister rushes to her mother for help, but the tar cannot be removed. For the rest of her life, the stepsister will be reminded of her shame.

Thus do the prideful cause their own destruction.

Humility as Self-Sacrifice

These are many versions of this kind of tale. They come from Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia. Sometimes the child must lick clean the infected eyes of an old woman or pick the apples from a tree or brave a snowstorm to bring food to a shut-in or share their food. What connects these tales and their tasks, is that, at heart, the younger children are humble.

Sometimes, we think humility is the same as self-sacrifice. Take Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree, in which a tree befriends a boy, offering herself to him, first in the form of apples to eat and a branch on which to swing. Later, when the boy wants money, she gives him her apples to sell. When he desires a house, the tree offers her branches. When he asks if she can give him a boat, she offers her trunk so he can make one.

Each time, having gotten what he wanted, the boy goes off, staying away for decades. Thinking of all she has done for him, “the tree is happy, but not really.” [1]

Finally, the boy returns, aged and weary. At that time, the tree has little to give, for she has been reduced to an old stump.

He assures her it doesn’t matter that she has no apples, for he has no teeth with which to eat them. If she has no branches for him to swing on, that’s okay, because he’s too old for that. He doesn’t care that has no trunk to climb, because he’s too tired. Never once does he consider that these losses might matter to her.

Yet she does not chastise him. Instead, she invites him to sit. So he does, and while he is with her, the tree is happy.

The Emptiness of Self-Sacrifice

This is the ultimate in sacrifice, the total giving of oneself to a person who barely notices. Indeed, the boy never seems satisfied with what he has. Nor does it occur to him to thank the tree, visit her, or plant other trees around her. Instead, he takes all the tree can give and goes off in search of some nameless “more.” Apparently, he never finds it, for he comes back to her withered and alone. This boy, it seems, is never content. But neither is the tree, not really. She longs for love and gives up everything hoping to find it.

Some people think this is a sweet tale that encourages selfless generosity. Others recoil at the story, blaming it for encouraging narcissism and codependence. Silverstein himself didn’t talk about it much. When pressed, he would say, “It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes.” [2]

And that is what we see in the stories of the younger and older siblings. One of them gives, and the other takes. The difference, perhaps, is that in folktales, the generous and self-sacrificing youngsters end up with riches, approval, and love. Their real parents return or they get married. Life is good for the good.

Silverstein is telling a different tale. He is reminding us that life isn’t like that. Being good isn’t enough. We can’t earn love. Trying to gain approval by sacrificing our time and effort and hearts for others, fearing to say “no” because we’re afraid of rejection, we end rejected anyway. We end up with a chopped-up body, a relationship with someone who isn’t really there, and a happiness that is a lie.

Self-Sacrifice Is Not Humility

Sometimes, we confuse this self-sacrificial behavior with humility. The Christian church has done this. As an example, they give us Jesus who saved his people from death by giving his life. Should we do no less?

According to Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, this is a “false humility.” In her exploration of the topic, she states that the church has conflated humility with the “enforced subordination of peoples, particularly women, who differ from the dominant norms of society and the church.” [3] By doing so, they also contorted Jesus’ message. Salvation is not a promise of eternal bliss. It is a state of grace that encourages us to show compassion to the grieving and generosity to the poor, not so we might end up with nothing, but so we might build a beloved community. After all, it’s hard to love our neighbor as ourselves when we think we’re unworthy.

Many of us interpret that verse about loving our neighbors as a caution against selfish pride. The assumption is that we all love ourselves, that self-love is selfish, and that we need to think less about ourselves and more about others. If we sacrifice ourselves, even better. We associate this with humility which is often seen as the opposite of pride, which is, of course, one of the deadly sins.

What Is Pride?

But what do we mean by pride?

Extrapolating from the stories of the older siblings or the boy who cut up the apple tree, we see that the “bad” characters think they are invincible, that they have the right to demand what they want without concerning themselves about others. As Hinson-Hasty explains, prideful individuals think they are the “center of the universe.” [4] They believe they are special, chosen, ordained by God.

Obviously, this is not the same as self-love. Indeed, this kind of bravado reveals deep reservoirs of pain. Like the narcissist in Eben Scheffler’s essay on humility, the older siblings of myth and folklore “suffer from a damaged self-image and cannot empathise (sic) with others.” [5] Yet they cover up their brokenness with an inflated sense of their own importance, and they harm themselves and others with their attempts to shore up their fragile humanity.

According to Hinson-Hasty, this kind of harmful pride arises from what Reinhold Niebuhr calls “the misuse of freedom.” [6] Niebuhr’s words imply that we must have freedom before we can be prideful, and it is true that the powerless are unlikely to imagine the world revolves around them the way the boy in Silverstein’s story did, yet the opposite is not necessarily true. Pride does not give us freedom. The kind of pride Niebuhr refers to imprisons us. It veils reality so we need not see, partnering with denial to blind us to truth.

Exorcising Pride Is Not the Answer

Just as traumatized individuals sometimes use great stores of energy to hide memories of past hurts from their conscious minds, so the excessively prideful expend a lot of effort hiding from who they really are. When we refuse to see, we make poor choices because, without honest information, our options are limited.

This does not negate the fact that we often misuse power. Power tempts us, and pride lures us into yielding to that temptation. That’s one reason twelve-step programs emphasize surrender. The newcomer is advised to “take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.” We are reminded that “our best thinking got us here.” The steps include a cataloging of our faults and a prayer to God to take away our “defects of character.” This can be helpful. Critics caution, though, that it is not helpful for everyone.

Not everyone suffers from this sin of pride, so not everyone needs to be humbled. That’s why many twelve-step groups promote a gentler approach to the steps and why Charlotte Kasl developed her sixteen-step program.

She describes these steps as an “empowerment model” better suited to women and other marginalized populations than are the traditional twelve steps. Along with encouraging self-determination, her program also addresses cultural and social influences.

For instance, she understands codependency as “internalized oppression” that cannot be resolved adequately without deconstructing the systemic structures in which we live. Kasl’s entire model invites those who stand on the margins of society to come together in compassionate community. No matter what we long to be free of, we cannot shake those shackles by ourselves.

Jewish man praying beside a window in a posture of humility, making a connection with the divine
Photo by Toa Heftiba

True Humility

To realize this, especially to embrace it, requires humility. I’m not talking here about the false humility that pretends we are insignificant, that we are not a threat. Embodying such humility can be a life-saving tactic for women or people of color, for those without homes or who use wheelchairs. When the marginalized and the outcast demand to be seen, heard, and respected, those who have accumulated power by keeping the humble in their place can get frightened. Scaring those in power can be dangerous.

That’s why the younger sibling smiles and does what he’s told, works hard and responds to every cry for help. Sometimes such behavior is rewarded. Most times, it helps us stay alive. But this is not true humility. This is a game, a biding of one’s time, a transaction. True humility does not diminish us. It is not humiliation. It does not marginalize us further. Instead, true humility gives us power.

I’m not speaking here of a power that abuses or demands fealty, but one that seeks to collaborate with others, to build structures and societies of peace, justice, and equity. The power behind humility denies self-abnegation, for the humble heart holds a truthful image of the self. We know who we are, and we understand what matters. Feeling confident in our being, we need not hold ourselves aloft, but can honor the worth and dignity of everyone else just as we honor that in ourselves. Because of this, as Scheffler points out, the humble person learns to forget the self as she opens to others. [7]

Relationship with the Sacred

Hinson-Hasty says something similar when she describes the way “genuine humility” invites us to unite with “a larger life-giving force.” When we feel secure in who we are, which, as we have seen, is a prerequisite for genuine humility, we do not fear fostering a relationship with the divine. After all, that mystical connection with the sacred can be, as she says, “a humbling experience,” and fear is often mixed with awe. [8]

Yet that fear does not inspire us to run from the mystical, but to invite the touch of grace to fill us with courage and compassion. As Grace M. Jantzen tells us in her discussion of the theology of Julian of Norwich, “Humility has to do with accepting and receiving the overwhelming love and delight of God in us, not with being ashamed of who and what we are.” [9] We can move forward in the world unabashed.

Not that we will never be embarrassed or shamed by something we do. Humility does not make us perfect, though it does allow us to own our mistakes, to apologize as needed, and to move forward knowing that even failure does not negate our inner value. We can sully our spirits by getting lost in addictions or lashing out with anger and intimidation, but if we can return to the deep connection to the sacred that sustains our humble heart, we can heal.

Humility as Wholeness

To heal means to become whole. A wound on our skin knits together, forming a wholeness out of what was torn. A cancer eats at us, deforming and dismantling parts of our body. To cure it, we might cut out part of our body or burn the mass with radiation. Healing takes what is left and reunites it, creating a new self that is stronger, though different, from before. Wholeness returns, even if it does not look like what we enjoyed in the past.

Similarly, we become whole when we heal our hearts. When we divide ourselves into good and evil, as in the stories of the siblings, one part completely blessed, the other completely cursed, we forget who we are. We lose the capacity to act from that source of truth and life that lies within us.

Humility arises when we heal that separation. A story from Borneo makes this explicit. It tells of two half boys, ripped down the middle of their bodies. One is all good, the other all bad. The good one lives in a distant village. The evil one is in love with a girl from his village. She believes in him, but she says that she cannot love his bad half until he finds his good self and becomes whole. So he searches for his brother, and one day he finds him. A wise chieftain tells them they must wrestle until they merge into one person, so they do. They wrestle for a day and a night and a day. The sky darkens, lightning flashes, rain pours down on them, but still they battle until at last, exhausted, their broken halves touch and join together.

Embracing Our Whole Selves

Reunited, they can live a full life, for within them now lie the good and the bad that are part of all us. The boy who is now one can experience the true pride that comes from knowing who we are and accepting that. Just as genuine humility allows us to see both our limitations and our magnificence, accepting ourselves as we are, so does genuine pride. With humble pride, or proud humility, we can open our hearts to the holy. We might then find we need not deny our inner worth to care about others.

As we can see from the story, such uniting is not easy. To welcome our shadow side and become one with it can be as frightening as it is to become one with God. When we identify with evil, on the other hand, merging with our good self can be at least as scary. Who are we if we have no easily-labeled identity? Some people, like the boy in The Giving Tree, never find their way to wholeness. No matter how old they get, they continue to think only of themselves. They continue to take from others. Most of them end up alone.

But loneliness need not be the end. It is true the pandemic has heightened the terrible cost of loneliness in our country. Young people commit suicide; elders die from grief. These are real problems, and our society has a long way to go before it consistently provides compassionate health care. Yet even the most damaged among us can choose to embrace wholeness, to look at ourselves clearly, to grow a humble heart. If we can do that, we might discover connections to others we had not seen before. We might feel a mystical union with the divine.

The Humble Heart

Such a union may be what allows the younger siblings to show compassion and generosity, to be patient and kind, to serve and honor even the most poor and vulnerable. Yes, the younger siblings may seem codependent, but they aren’t denying themselves. Their behavior isn’t selfless sacrifice. They take pleasure in helping others not because they think they have no value, but because it feels good to help. It is the right thing, and they like to do what is right.

Still, they don’t give up everything. They might continue on in spite of cold and danger if they have no choice, as does Marushka in the story of the Month Brothers when her stepmother forces out into the snow. Yet she gladly accepts a place by the fire when she meets the magic brothers who rule the seasons. She will take food and rest when she can.

In the story of Kotura, the Lord of the Winds, a father of three daughters realizes that someone must go to the lord and convince him to stop the storm that is destroying their village. He gives explicit instructions for their success, but only the youngest daughter pays attention. Following his instructions makes her wet and cold, yet she obeys, not out of fear or shame, but out of love. She knows her father loves her and that he believes in her. This gives her the courage to believe in herself. She’s not codependent, but respectful of her elders. Being humble, she can recognize when she is ignorant without feeling shame. Thus, she can listen to those who are wise.

The Open Heart

When we have been rejected by those who should take care of us, when we grow up oppressed and abused, we sometimes accept our marginalization. We bow to authority. Growing up in a dangerous world, we do what we must to live one more day.

That is not the only way to respond to pain and struggle, however. Abuse might frighten us and make us timid, yet it can also teach us to be cruel.

Still, there is a third way to respond. Instead of turning our suffering into hatred, whether of ourselves or others, we can transform abuse and neglect into compassion.

Why can only some do this? Perhaps it’s because they were loved by one favorite adult, or born with an inner gift that strengthened them, or touched by the sacred in a quiet moment. Regardless, for some people, cruelty does not so much crush their hearts as crack them open. The suffering they’ve known generates within them a compassion they would otherwise not feel.

The humble heart is an open heart. It connects us to the cosmos, to nature, to the divine. From that connection, we develop a faith in our true nature that instills an honest pride and a genuine humility. We can feel the love that is everywhere, a love that can inspire us to love others, but this will only happen if we heal the hurts that fester in our souls.

Our task, then, is to find a way to heal ourselves and those around us. We must mend our hearts and repair the wounds of our nation. Then, we might all grow in the humility that breeds compassion.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Silverstein, Shel, The Giving Tree, New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
  2. Margalit, Ruth, “’The Giving Tree’ at Fifty: Sadder than I Remember,” The New Yorker, November 5, 2014, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/giving-tree-50-sadder-remembered, accessed 4/17/21.
  3. Hinson-Hasty, Elizabeth, “Revisiting Feminist Discussions of Sin and Genuine Humility,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 28, no. 1, 2012, pp. 108–114, 110, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jfemistudreli.28.1.108. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.
  4. Ibid 108.
  5. Scheffler, Eben, “Reflecting on Jesus’ Teaching on Humility from a Positive Psychological Perspective.” Neotestamentica, vol. 51, no. 1, 2017, pp. 95–112, 98. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26417488. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.
  6. Hinson-Hasty 108.
  7. Scheffler 98.
  8. Hinson-Hasty 114.
  9. Jantzen, Grace M., Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 153.

Photo by Toa Heftiba

Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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