It’s time to explore a lost virtue, one that doesn’t make it onto any Pagan list: humility.
We associate humility with Christianity, with traditions that espouse a concept of sin, with self-abnegation. Monks in rough-woven habits, flagellating themselves in a dark cell while begging for mercy from a judgmental god. A serf laboring under a master’s whip. An elderly widow begging on the side of the road.
Where the heck is the virtue in that?
“Humility” and “humble” are ultimately linked with “humus,” the earth itself — an ancient word that has Indo-European roots including the Russian zemlya, part of the name of Moist Mother Earth; the Sanskrit ksam; the Greek cthon. To be humble is to be close to the Earth: small in stature or bent to the ground in labor. It is the virtue of the third function, the farmers and laborers — the antithesis of the arrogance or pride manifest in warriors and nobility.
Humility is out of fashion. Our talk is more of pride — pride in our gender or religion or race, pride in our nation, pride even in our ability to endure suffering. “Proud” comes from an Old English Word meaning arrogant; it’s roots ultimately derive from the Latin “prodesse,” to be of worth.
When we are proud, we feel our worth. When we are humble, we feel our insignificance.
It is through humility that we forge relationships — with other humans, with the spirits, with the Gods. It is our humility — the sense that we, as individuals, cannot define or encompass the Other and instead must approach it with openness and vulnerability — that makes true relationship possible. It is a recognition that we are, indeed, close to the Earth in stature, that we are born of her and will die back into her, that all we are and all we have done shall dissolve into dust.
Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: “Yes, but I love myself.”
A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.
Humility, then, is a subset of truth, of honesty. It’s a recognition of what we really are — individuals, yes, but one among billions, no more important than anything or anyone else. The powerful can be rendered powerless. The fit can become frail. Nothing is permanent except our vulnerability and our mortality.
It’s an unsettling truth, and one that’s actually essential — at least in my view — to deep spiritual experience.