Don't Pray for Humility (Unless You Have Nothing to Lose)
Sophia Denney, Spring 2016
Sometimes I wish I had never prayed for humility. Humility is the virtue I forgot. Growing up a cradle Catholic, I knew I made mistakes. I knew I didn’t pray enough, and that I shouldn’t have been rude to my little brother or made a joke about my teacher behind her back. Regardless, I believed that at my core I was a good person. I was kind to my friends, and I still remember when my friend told me I was the nicest girl in our whole class at her birthday party. If she liked me that much, surely God did too.
As I continued through middle school, I developed a sense of self-confidence stemming mostly from my own achievements. I received good grades and won an art competition at the local library. In high school, I started praying for others more and increased my community service. I saved up money to buy my own car, and I worked two jobs. I picked up my siblings after school and no matter how many times I messed up, I felt like I was generous, loving, responsible and loyal.
But as you might have guessed, these virtues were not so virtuous. Secret even from my own consciousness, I was patting myself on the back in every single situation. Although I was cognizant of the fact that I was not a better person than those around me, my self-image was inflated. I was prone to correcting others; my siblings often asked me “Why do you always have to be right?”
Applying for college was a wake-up call for humility in my life. That was when I realized that I was a white, middle class, straight-A student with married parents applying to Yale, Northwestern, and Vanderbilt. What made me special enough to be admitted? I had never overcome any significant obstacles, and I had to admit that there were others who deserved a spot at these universities more than I did. That realization was frustrating, and it made me stop to consider whether or not I had a humble mindset.
That same year, when the Christmas season rolled around, I decided to pray the St. Andrew Christmas Novena to ask God to instill in me a spirit of humility. A novena is comprised of a single prayer or additional services observed for nine successive days. The St. Andrew Christmas Novena in particular is widely believed to be one of the most powerful novenas in existence; so powerful that its length was extended to last for all 25 days preceding Christmas. Supposedly, if you pray this brief prayer 15 times a day from November 30th to Christmas Eve with specific intentions in mind, God will honor your requests.
This was not the first time that the Novena enabled God to make unparalleled changes in my life. In the past, God had consistently honored my intentions. One year, I simply asked God to go on a date, and by the following May I found myself in my first relationship. Another year, I prayed for my cousin to get into a university he could afford, and soon enough he found out he had been accepted to Yale with a near full-ride scholarship.
But by December of my senior year, when I prayed for humility, I had no idea what I was requesting.
By the time I graduated from high school, I had received no magical answer to my conundrum. I didn’t feel any more humble than before, but I didn’t dwell on it. Quickly, I became distracted by the excitement of being accepted to Vanderbilt. I was too focused on my own accomplishments to remember that humility was something I should be working toward, whether God could “give” it to me or not.
Then I arrived at Vandy. My first impression was that everyone was beautiful. I was intimidated at first; I didn’t even wear makeup. How could I compete with these people? Would I even make any friends? I soon relaxed; my friends back home texted me often, and I made a few friends at a VU Theatre ice cream social. I started to become confident once more, thinking that while I was now surrounded by many other smart cookies, I still had something original to offer.
But something unexpected happened.
Right away, I auditioned for five different student organizations at Vandy. Original Cast? It was a no from them. Metamorphoses at VUTheatre? Nope. Harmonic Notion a cappella? No. Freshman Showcase at VUT? No. Legally Blonde with Vanderbilt-Off -Broadway? Another no.
The last two in particular stung. I went from being the lead or a supporting role in nearly every musical at my high school to being unable to join the Legally Blonde cast even as a chorus member. And Freshman Showcase; I couldn’t even score a role in a production that only freshman could audition for? I started to think more negatively about myself, and I tried very hard not to appear upset about any of these losses. For a time, I used the phrase “I was rejected from 5 VPACorgs,” as my claim to fame; a “look at me, I’m such a martyr!” sentiment to make myself feel better.
Unfortunately, the overall effect of repeating this didn’t make me feel any better, frankly annoying most friends on the receiving end of the statement. One night, while complaining to God about my situation, I was struck hard by a realization: this, finally, could be His answer to my Novena prayer for humility. I was aghast. That’s not what I meant, I prayed. What’s done is done, He seemed to tell me.
God had not given me humility itself, but an opportunity to learn and grow towards it. Something causing me to embark on a journey of gratitude for my talent, to rid myself of entitlement and a desire to assert myself over others. However, it was going to take more work than the simple act of pitying myself in my lowliness and inability to succeed. I needed to reorient my life.
Let me amend my original statement: Don’t pray for humility unless you know what you’re asking for.
At this point, you’re probably asking an important question; why should you listen to me? Answer: You probably shouldn’t. In writing this article, I am admitting to you, my readers, that I don’t have it all figured out. I’m not qualified to write about humility. In fact; I may be the least qualified person to write on this topic because of the simple fact that I am a writer. Not only do I want you to enjoy the content of this article, there is also a part of me with a deep desire for you to value this article because I wrote it.
I admit that I’m a prideful person. I struggle with humility every day, and even after my experience praying for it, that fact hasn’t changed. I can’t provide any answers. All I can do is tell my story and share my understanding, in the hope that it will shed some light on yours.
One thing is certain: humility is tricky. Merriam-Webster states that being humble is defined as: “not proud; not thinking of yourself as better than other people.” In our society, what this often turns into is the unrealistic idea that to be humble, you must never accept praise or acknowledge your own accomplishments. Instead, you must minimize yourself into a martyr, sacrificing your own preferences to others’ every chance you have.
In actuality, Christian humility is not meant to be like that. God does not want us to beat ourselves up. God
does not intend for us to reject compliments or feel like a victim. Rather, God wants us to find humility by freeing our hearts from the desire to win, to be favored over others, and to be held in high regard. Once we are freed, we see ourselves for what we really are: human beings. G.K. Chesterton, an English writer and philosopher, says that “Humility is the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing or a large one, but to a thing with no size at all, so that to it all the cosmic things are what they really are: of immeasurable stature.”1
When we see ourselves as human, we can see that we make mistakes. We know we are sinners. But we can also see God’s great love for us. The book of Genesis states; “Then God said, Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness.”2 God loves us because we are his sons and daughters. He loves us just as a human father loves his children. We are related to him; we are his kin and his descendants.
In my own life, God’s great love for me has been essential to understanding humility. A month ago, I came to the chapel of University Catholic’s Frassati House after a long stretch of going without a holy hour each week. I sat on the wooden floor of the chapel and opened my journal. My legs ached, my head buzzing with all the studying I still needed to do. I felt directionless. Sad but not sure why, I wrote. After writing and writing, I realized why I was sad. I felt guilty because I hadn’t been praying, even though it was Lent, which is intended to be a time of deepening faith. Then I felt an insistent thought tugging at me, freeing me from the desire to be esteemed. I was overcome, simply, by the words “You don’t have to prove yourself.” This instance was a beautiful gift from God, helping me to understand humility in the context of His unfathomable love.
As I thought about this sentence, “You don’t have to prove yourself,” I realized that I didn’t have to gain the approval and appreciation of others in my life. I didn’t have to be a better writer, actress, or singer than anyone else. I could be myself; a human being, loved by God my Father.
In considering all this, I realized that the journey to humility is a lot like the journey to self-actualization in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.3 Maslow was interested in what motivated people, so he created his Hierarchy to describe the various needs individuals are motivated to fulfill. At the top of the pyramid is SelfActualization, the fulfillment of all desires.
One of the key aspects of Maslow’s Hierarchy is the idea that one must fulfill the needs of each level before focusing on any of the higher levels. For a moment, consider humility as a version of Self-Actualization; as our goal. Looking down the pyramid, you can see that Love and Belongingness needs must be met before we can focus on Esteem needs. This means that you must fulfill the need to be loved by others before you can love yourself. If you know that you are loved by God, then you can love yourself and aim for humility. You do not need to seek approval and appreciation from others because God’s approval means so much more than anything on Earth. You don’t have to prove yourself.
Much like Self-Actualization, humility is not a one-time achievement. A Self-Actualized state cannot be maintained all the time because human needs change from moment to moment. Just as you can become hungry, and focus your energies on Physiological Needs rather than the higher levels, there are many thoughts and moments in our lives that can derail our journey toward humility. And as I said, even after growing in my understanding, humility remains my most significant daily trial.
In conclusion, I offer you a piece of advice on humility from a Catholic priest that I think about whenever I am struggling to avoid congratulating myself for my own successes.
“Whenever you think about your achievements, give thanks to God. You could do little without Him who gave you the gift of your talents."
1 Chesterton, G. K. (2000). A Defence of Humility. On Lying in Bed and Other Essays by G.K. Chesterton. Ed. Alberto Manguel. Calgary: Bayeux Arts. 367.
2 Genesis 1:26. (1979). The Holy Bible: New International Version. London: Hodder & Stoughton. 3 Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review 50.4 (1943): 370-96.
3 Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review 50.4 (1943): 370-96.