I have been thinking a lot about stillness over these past few months. The louder culture yells, it seems, the more desperately I desire a deep quietude of the soul.
In one version of this blog, I examined this desire for quiet considering Biblical proclamations to be still before the Lord (e.g., Psalm 37:7). I spent time thinking through how Biblical stillness does not mean we do nothing as stillness before God is not the same as “unplugging” in the modern call for self-care. No, I believe that stillness before the Lord is more like Jesus’ explanation of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27), giving space to prepare us to act consistent with the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36-40). Because I am not a theologian, I was planning to connect this to mindfulness; mindfulness is a connection to the present, a means to give us eyes to see and a willingness to act toward justice.
And yet, that is not what this blog is about. I still think there is something to those ideas but the more I wrote the more I realized those ideas were not the primary thoughts about stillness swirling around in my head. My current desire for stillness is less about mindfulness and more about humility. Humility as the calm amid cultural storms.
As a psychologist, I am interested in thinking about humility from a scientific perspective. This means we need to start with measurement. Measuring humility is a notoriously difficult task. How do you measure whether someone is humble? If you ask participants “How much do you agree with this statement? I am a humble person,” how should you interpret the results? Someone who is legitimately humble should agree, right? But in agreeing, are they somehow less humble? What about the truly arrogant person who is the “most humble of everyone” in their own eyes? It’s a thorny issue, one that has garnered quite a bit of research lately.
One of the more recent psychological definitions of humility comes from Worthington et al. (2017). A humble person is defined as one who is other-oriented, modest (not self-promoting), and someone who accurately represents themselves. So, if I have three gold medals earned in underwater basket-weaving world championships, it would not make me arrogant to accurately portray my expertise in this time-honored tradition. However, the other elements of humility would require that I do so in a way that is not self-aggrandizing and in a way that keeps others as my focal point. (i.e., “Friend, I see that you keep losing your car keys. I have developed some skill in underwater basket weaving. Would it serve you well if I made you a basket to store your keys?”)
In this article, several empirically-supported practices for developing humility are described along with some key reasons why we might want to develop more humility. Humility, it turns out, is a boon to mental well-being. For example, humble people tend to better navigate life’s stresses and challenges. They also tend to exhibit other traits and practices that also have a host of positive benefits—gratitude, generosity, prosocial behavior, among others. If you stop to think about it, some of this might make sense. These kinds of practices are built into the definition of humility. If we are not so focused on ourselves, but wondering how we can serve others, these practices naturally follow. Moreover, humility shows its benefits even in places where we might wonder if a bit of self-promotion might be beneficial. Consider CEOs. As the leaders of their company, we might think that a little bit of “look at me, I’m leading and I’m awesome” might not be so bad. And yet, research shows that humble CEOs are better leaders and more innovative than less humble CEOs.
I think a great deal of the chaos in our culture might be attenuated with a bit more humility. But even this statement needs some additional explanation as Worthington et al. (as well as other researchers) distinguish between general humility (as described above) and more specific instantiations of humility. One of my favorite types of humility is intellectual humility. (Note: favorite doesn’t mean it’s easy or that I’m somehow the most awesome of this kind of humility…)
Individuals who are intellectually humble are willing to admit that they might be wrong and that there are things they don’t know. (Hi, my name is Erin and there is a whole lot of things that I don’t know.) Intellectually humble individuals will change their beliefs when presented with evidence that their beliefs are wrong. (This one is harder for me.) According to this study, intellectually humble people tend to be curious, open to new ideas, and reflective. They are willing (and able) to sit in the “gray zones,” where things are not known with certainty (which, if we were honest, describes most of the things we “know”).
One might look at this list and think, “so, intellectually humble people must not have opinions; they must just appease and agree with whatever group they are in, right?” No. Intellectually humble people hold beliefs with the same kinds of convictions as other people, they just do so with more nuance, recognizing (or at least being open to someone else’s recognition) the limits of what they know. This means that, when there is high quality and robust evidence supporting their beliefs, an intellectually humble person will hold to their belief; their beliefs do not change with the wind. But they will do so in a way that serves others (i.e., listening, engaging, and calling others to the whole scope of the evidence on an issue) and is authentically open to evaluating new evidence that might not be consistent with their beliefs.
One of the great tensions Jesus modeled can be seen in intellectual humility. As Christians, we are to be thoughtful, to have reasons for our beliefs (e.g., 1 Peter 3:15), but these reasons are not to be wielded as weapons to interfere with the greatest commandment, to love God and love others (Matthew 22:36-40). On the flip side, loving others does not mean that “all opinions are equal” or that “everyone can believe what they want,” developing their own truths (or so-called ‘alternative facts’). The intellectually humble hold their beliefs with reason and conviction, with a willingness to re-evaluate with evidence, and with the goal of being a better neighbor (not beating their neighbor with their facts). We are called to something more than this. We are called to speak
love (Ephesians 4:15).
Let me now try to circle back to the peace—the stillness—that my heart craves. As I reflect on the quality and tone of conversations in our culture in this present moment, I am deeply aware of the lack of humility (generally) and intellectual humility (specifically). Nuance does not make good click bait and we are often too hurried for the depth of thinking that marks intellectual humility. I cannot change culture on my own, but I can—with God’s help—search my heart (Psalm 139:23-24). I can commit to a process of holding beliefs with a sense of curiosity and openness, to admitting that I might be wrong. I can confess my arrogance and turn my eyes toward others (Philippians 2:4), accurately, and modestly, portraying and leveraging my strengths for the benefit of my neighbor, always learning, always loving. This is difficult, but this is part of my calling. If you feel this is part of your calling as well, a good starting place is an open and honest acknowledgement that what we believe now is most likely a combination of things that are true and things that are false and that we can—and should—allow our minds to be changed with new evidence (empirical, revelation, tradition, community, experience, etc.).
I desire stillness. More specifically, I desire stillness to produce clarity. May the weight of glory bring humility and foster a stillness in my soul to distill culture’s competing shouts about truth as I steadfastly search the cloudy mirror for Jesus.
UPDATE: After this blog posted, I came across this quote from Andrew Murray in his book, Humility. I thought it worth sharing here, relative to the connection between quietude and humility:
Humility is perfect quietness of heart. It is to expect nothing, to wonder at nothing that is done to me, to feel nothing done against me. It is to be at rest when nobody praises me, and when I am blamed or despised. It is to have a blessed home in the Lord, where I can go in and shut the door, and kneel to my Father in secret, and am at peace as in a deep sea of calmness, when all around and above is trouble.