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Humility

February 24, 2014
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For most of my life I have had a simple problem.  As a Christian I am called to humility.  As a student and eventually researcher I’ve been consistently told that I am very smart.  Accepting this commendation seems arrogant.  Refusing it also seems arrogant in a different way – I would be claiming that all the people who told me that I was very smart were wrong and that I held some sort of importance (but apparently not intelligence) that allowed me to dismiss their conclusions on my own.

Lots of people face some sort of dilemma like this: you get told you have a talent but agreeing seems arrogant even if you agree only in your own mind.  Some people face a larger challenge in that their talents are clearly measurable and they clearly are quite a lot better than most other people.  If you win a dozen races in a row against stiff competition are you allowed to think that you are probably really fast?  Most people would say yes but this answer may change if the talent is different.  If, for instance, I provided solid objective evidence that I really was smarter than most people1 a lot of people who would let someone claim to be very fast would still squirm at the claim “I’m probably smarter than you”.  (Problematically almost everyone knows someone they are certain is not as smart as they are and so this is hardly a hypothetical.)  But why are different standards applied?

I suspect that the main reason is that we value intelligence quite a lot in our society.  Saying, “I’m smarter than you,” sounds a lot like, “I’m generically better than you,” to a lot of people whereas, “I’m faster than you,” sounds more like, “I have a specific talent that I excel at.”  However, the overall flinching at claiming to be good at something (even when there is objective evidence for it) may relate to what I have previously termed the “grand balance” theory of equality.  This is the theory (normally implicit) that everyone has a vast number of ways they could be measured but if you summed them up everyone would come out the same (or perhaps everyone would come out with a necessary piece of the human puzzle).

Now it would appear that the grand balance theory would have no problem with people claiming to be good at things since it itself claims that everyone is good at something.  Shouldn’t a claim to be good at something be a natural response to the grand balance?  The issue here is that we are summing people’s worth up by summing their talents.  When we do this claims to have talents become claims to greater worth and threaten the system.  Indeed, one reason we probably flinch more about claims to intelligence than claims to athletic ability is that claims to intelligence may be covert claims to be good at a vast array of things – mathematics, science, basic problem-solving, literary analysis, decision making, and so on – whereas claims to athletic ability sound more like staking a claim to one’s primary (and single) talent.

I propose that one can be humble without entering into this minefield at all.  The grand balance is simply wrong.  Human value is not a sum of talents.  Within a Christian worldview we cannot claim that God loves the talented more than the talentless.  (Nor can we find Scriptural warrant to claim that God carefully balanced everyone’s talents.)  Phrases like “To whom much is given much is expected” (Luke 12:48) suggest that there really are people to whom more has been given.  However, it also suggests that true humility might consist of something other than falsely claiming not to have received much.

Humility, I think, may actually lie in understanding what your talents aren’t worth.  Are you a world-renowned author?  Great, but that makes you no more essentially human than anyone else.  Are you brilliant?  Good, it’s useful, but the Kingdom of Heaven is open to drooling idiots as well.

Americans (and perhaps Westerners in general) are both unfamiliar with and repulsed by strong ideas of social class.  When we hear about a politician or a celebrity attempting to get away with something on the basis of their status we are incensed – they must follow the rules like everyone else.  However, we’ve made being good at things its own sort of class.  People who excel at something are allowed to look down on others in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable if these same people had used their heritage (“My great-grandfather was an earl, you know!”) as an excuse to look down on others.  The issue is that when we come to fix this we don’t fix it by saying, “That doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things – talentless morons are beloved by God too,” but instead, “Everyone is a beautifully talented snowflake on the inside.”

I actually believe that it is harder to accept that one is good at something (especially something our culture values) and that this does not make one a superior sort of person than it is to simply pretend that one isn’t very good.

Now, of course, I don’t mean to suggest by this that everyone should go about bragging.  In fact bragging is a sign that one thinks ones abilities are very important which is just the opposite of what I’m saying.  However, I don’t believe that realistic self-reflection that concludes that one is good at something is a problem for humility.  The problem is when one decides that being good at something makes one a special sort of person who is more important than others.


[1] For the record, I don’t think IQ tests or any other test really measures the full sum of what we term intelligence.  Intelligence (at least in a non-technical context) refers to a number of different mental tasks and attempting to sum them up into a single measure may be impossible.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2014 1:07 pm

    I identify with that problem too–I can’t take a compliment well myself, to the point it’s pretty well accepted that a compliment will completely trip me up. So-called “impostor syndrome” gets wrapped up in this too. I agree that it can’t be solved without countering the idea that a trait (or a sum of traits) fundamentally makes one better. Of course, the difficulty is, no one is unaffected and there is no way to deal with them in a cultural vacuum.

    There’s about a hundred directions I could take on this but I will avoid posting a wall of text.

  2. Sharon permalink
    March 5, 2014 12:22 pm

    I think you are most definitely onto something.

    I am one of the lucky ones whose parents pushed for an education so that I could better myself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that until we begin to see or feel resentment on behalf of others who did not enjoy that privilege. Privilege itself has become a sort of currency in the entitlement markets. I’ve know people in both spectrums — those I’d likely consider far more intelligent & those I’d consider less intelligent. I’ve easily practiced snobbery and been a victim of snobbery where that currency is exchanged.

    When we start seeing others as a person rather than a commodity or what they bring to the table, then we can accept people in the way God expects us to accept them. Once that acceptance happens, then we should start seeking how we can enable ourselves and others to best contribute in a way that makes them a unique contributor in the grand scheme of things, which is essentially who God created us to be.

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