Faith Matters

It’s easy to mistake humility for humiliation

The saints are so big on humility that sometimes the line seems fuzzy.

My best friend and I have a game we play called “humiliation.” It started when we were fresh out of school and beginning our first jobs. We’d call each other up and share stories about how, for example, a man had reached out with a smile after a sermon or a lecture, leaned in, and said, “I felt so sorry for you while you were speaking.” Sharing such stories disarmed them, ordering the confusion we felt in the moment into something more manageable. And laughing together was balm.

We don’t humiliate as easily as we used to. But we still have stories to tell. Whenever I open up my email to find a message from my friend with the word humiliation in the subject line, I mentally rub my hands together in anticipation and start searching my own recent past for a story to send back. It usually doesn’t take very long to find one.

Humiliation isn’t really the right word for most of the stories my friend and I have shared over the years. Most are not about being on the receiving end of someone’s meanness, but about the kinds of experiences that sting because they contain a bit of truth: survivable discomforts, like reading a negative course evaluation. They are experiences that cultivate humility—the foundation, as Teresa of Ávila teaches, upon which the spiritual life is built. The treasure that Simone Weil says is worth more than any accolade. The vantage point, as Bernard of Clairvaux describes it, from which we might have a chance of glimpsing the truth.