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Humility and Self-Love: Are They Compatible?

Lynn Underwood

"I was interviewing Trappist monks as part of a qualitative research project, asking each of them: 'What is essential in order to be compassionately loving towards others?' ... [T]he abbot’s comment about accepting yourself was not one I expected to hear."

Senior Research Scholar, Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University
February 24, 2016

“Accepting yourself, in order to accept others,” was one of the things that the abbot answered.

I was interviewing Trappist monks as part of a qualitative research project, asking each of them: “What is essential in order to be compassionately loving towards others?” One monk answered, “helping others to become fully themselves.” Humility was also mentioned as an important feature of compassionate love.[1] But the abbot’s comment about accepting yourself was not one I expected to hear. I did not expect the monks to focus at all on the self as part of loving others.

Defining Compassionate Love

I developed a definition of compassionate love designed to help with empirical research on loving others. It is an articulation of several qualities necessary for compassionate love to be present. The definition includes some element of free choice; some degree of understanding of the situation, the other, and oneself; fundamentally valuing the other; some heartfelt engagement, and openness to grace.[2]

This working definition focuses on loving others. But it can also apply to being compassionately loving towards oneself in ways that enrich our notions of humility.

Humble Self-Love?: Receiving Love for Yourself

Can this definition be applied to love of self in a way that is also compatible with humility?

Is there a way to envision a kind of love for ourselves that does not puff us up, or reflect an inflated sense of ourselves, but values ourselves rightly? How do we allow divine love and mercy to flow through us in a way that truly promotes our own flourishing, the unfolding of ourselves into fullness of life?

In my book, Spiritual Connection in Daily Life: 16 Little Questions That Can Make a Big Difference, I wrote:

This is hard to tease out in our perceptions of our attitudes. It’s not the same as “me-me-me,” in a self-centered way, and it is not letting yourself off the hook when you need to be responsible. Sometimes self-compassion is tough love. Self-compassion is part of consciously valuing yourself. Sometimes you are the best person to express care and love for yourself in a way that is “more than.” If we envision the divine within us, in ways that many religions and philosophies articulate, we can sing divine love to our own hearts.

“Humility is an honest appraisal of who we are, as ultimately contingent beings, of equal value with other people—not more valuable or less so.”

Can you accept yourself even when you do things you think are wrong? This doesn’t mean being irresponsible, but taking a warm and loving attitude to yourself in the midst of falling short of your aspirations, or when you do something you think is wrong. Some of us need to be reminded not to be harder on ourselves than we are on others. Can you include yourself as one of the “others” that you feel a selfless caring for? A good piece of advice I heard for those who have trouble caring adequately for themselves is to treat themselves as they would a beloved friend. Are you willing to be a conduit of divine love for yourself?3

In yielding to love flowing through us in this way, we must step aside from our own ego-centered goals and attitudes.

Charles Williams on the Failure of Self-Love

Charles Williams, one of the Inklings with CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, has a variety of characters in his novels that exemplify how compassionate love of self fails. In one novel, Descent into Hell, a building worker, with a harridan of a wife and terrible bosses, fails to greatly to accept himself that he ends up committing suicide—he hung himself. He did not adequately value himself. He did not accept himself as intrinsically of worth. He gave too much credence to others, and cared for them at the cost of excessive neglect of his own flourishing.

“Can we show the tenderness towards ourselves that God can sometimes show to us through others?”

Another character, Wentworth—a professor of history—highly values the externalities of himself, and has an ego that he constantly defends. He is not willing to see his flaws, lest they bruise his pride. This attitude not only damages his own character, but prevents him from experiencing compassionate love from others.4

Walking the Line of Self-Love

There are some of us who do harm to ourselves and to the world by not adequately valuing ourselves at a fundamental level. If we do not stand up for this marvelous being, and if we do not try to make sure that what we have to contribute is heard, this can actually encourage others to dominate and oppress us. Clearly, this falls short of compassionate love.

On the other side of the coin, some people fall into the trap of valuing themselves excessively, and not adequately respecting others. Neither does this excessive valuing of the self fit the definition of compassionate love.

True compassionate love includes accurate perception of the self, cognitive understanding, and receptivity to God’s grace—enlightenment, inspiration.

Humility and the Dignity in Being Loved by God

In my interviews with the monks, I asked what practices enabled them to be more compassionately loving. Their answers included time in silence, prayer, and living in a community that supports love as important. But another answer was, “strengthening your identity, your awareness of who you are.” Here, the monk’s answer points to humility. Humility is an honest appraisal of who we are, as ultimately contingent beings, of equal value with other people—not more valuable or less so. Poet and priest, Father Ralph Wright of Saint Louis Abbey, captures a humble self-love in his poem, “as you passed by me.”

as you passed by me

by Ralph Wright OSB5

as you passed by me

lying

with nothing beautiful about me

helpless

caught in my sin

like a beast in a trap

you looked at me—

dark water with the distant stars

of deep love reflected

in all the calm of tenderness—

you didn’t even have a chance to speak

they needed you elsewhere too quickly

but in your wake you left me

quickened into knowing

by that glance

my dignity in being loved by you

Can we show the tenderness towards ourselves that God can sometimes show to us through others?

If we identify too much with externalities: job, achievements, status of various kinds, social roles, we miss our fundamental value. A value that is not dependent on these external features, or what others say about us, but on our identities as beloved—loved and valued equally with other human beings. True humility comes from acknowledging this. When we are reminded of this identity we can love ourselves with grace, yet keep an accurate perception of ourselves and our place in this vast and glorious universe.

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References