St. Martin de Porres1 was born to a freed slave from Panama. As his mother was either of African or Native American ancestry, Martin inherited her dark complexion. His father, a Spanish nobleman, was irritated by his son’s dark skin and would have nothing to do with him. Eventually, Martin’s father abandoned him, his mother, and his sister.
When he was twelve, Martin apprenticed with a surgeon who taught him how to care for wounds and give medicines.
Some years later, he joined the Dominicans as a lay helper. He didn’t feel worthy enough to profess vows as a religious. As it turned out, his piety, charity, and humility impressed the community so much that they invited him to join them as a religious brother.
Martin spent his days praying, nursing the sick, and caring for the poor. He looked after slaves from Africa and eventually helped start an orphanage. He became famous for working numerous miracles.
Although he gained the respect of many, Martin always thought and spoke of himself as a “poor slave.” On one occasion when the priory was in debt, he offered himself to be sold for money, saying: “I am only a poor mulatto. Sell me.”
Humility: The Elusive Virtue
St. Martin de Porres was a humble man. But what is humility? Here’s one definition:
humility noun A modest or low view of one’s importance.2
If humility involves a view of our importance, we should also ask: “In reference to what?”
If we looked at our significance in reference to the rest of the universe, we might say that we hardly matter at all. If we contrast ourselves with those around us, our importance would depend on the prevailing values of the group. Compared to our own ego ideal, we could see ourselves as God’s gift to the world.
I would like to propose an alternate definition and reference point:
Humility is seeing ourselves as we really are — no more or no less — and our point of reference is how God sees us.
So how does God see us?
- He created us in his own image. We are beautifully and wonderfully made.
- Each person, regardless of appearance, abilities, possessions, etc. has value and dignity, with none greater or lesser than another.
- All we have has been given to us, and except for our immortal soul, will pass from us when we die.
- The value of our abilities and characteristics remains unchanged regardless of others’ opinions, needs, or recognition.
- We have weaknesses and defects, regardless of whether anyone else notices them.
The person who has perfect humility will take both praise and criticism with equanimity.
Pride: The Stealth Sin
The opposite of humility is pride, which has several variants.
Arrogance. The arrogant have an exaggerated sense of their importance and make sure the people around them know it.
Narcissism. Narcissism is more than an irritating characteristic; it’s a personality pattern. These people exaggerate their achievements, believe they hold a special place above others and require others’ admiration.
Defensiveness and disregard. This is garden-variety pride. Some characteristics include:
- Disregarding another’s opinion without further consideration if it doesn’t fit their own way of thinking.
- Becoming angry when someone criticizes them.
- Having difficulty admitting they made a mistake.
- Jumping to conclusions about another’s motives before they know all the facts.
False humility. These people put themselves down to accentuate their low position. They do this to make themselves appear humble. For others, self-deprecation is a way for them to nurture self-pity or even self-hatred.
Humility isn’t just a pleasant personality trait; it’s vital for psychological, interpersonal, and spiritual health. So what can we do to nurture this virtue?
Readjust your perspective.
Try to see yourself as God sees you.
Recognize that everything you have has been given to you as a gift.
Consider that everything about you and this life, except for your soul, is transient. It’s a sobering thought, but we also have the potential for eternal life with God through Jesus Christ.
Honor the truth.
Pride likes to hide the truth or ignore it. Humility honestly and realistically acknowledges what one can or can’t do; who one is and isn’t.
Treat each person like a VIP (“Very Important Person”)
That’s because we are VIPs. God made us so. But in this world, we seem to like having winners and losers, allowing us to disregard some and look up to others.
Learn to express gratitude for everything and to everyone.
It’s virtually impossible to remain prideful and express genuine gratitude at the same time. But showing appreciation can be difficult, especially when you have to thank someone you dislike.
Stop comparing yourself to others.
Comparisons to others are worse than useless as they set us up for a tiered system.
Work at developing empathy and compassion for others.
Compassion is another antidote for pride. Empathy places us in the shoes of the other person, and exercising compassionate care requires us to put the needs others above our own.
1Leonard Foley and Pat McCloskey eds., Saint of the Day, Franciscan Media: Cincinnati, OH, 2013, pp. 302-303.
2“Humility,” OED, Oxford University Press, accessed May 1, 2018, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/humility.
The Elusive Virtue is part of a series on promoting psychological and spiritual health.