We all know that guy, the true jack of all trades and master of…well, all of them. He golfs, runs, makes a ton of money, and even prays with his family at night. At church, he probably wears black (or navy) suits with red (or blue) power ties, and when you bump into him at the store he’s wearing a matching track suit as if he just stepped out of an Under Armour catalogue. He rarely, if ever, says things like “I don’t know,” or “What does that mean,” and if he ever gets over his head, he quickly finds a way out, or he fakes it till he makes it, saying things that begin with “I know” and “I’m sure,” or, even better, he launches into a one-upping story, as in, “Oh, that’s nothing, one time I…” But the crazy thing is, he doesn’t realize he’s being that guy.
The truth is we are so afraid of being that guy that we go overboard the other way. We don’t make absolute claims anymore. We dispassionately cast an observation into the social sea and protect ourselves from anyone who may disagree. In our passionate attempts at appearing humble we dispassionately talk about very little, and when confronted with conflict, bow to the most passionate one at the table in order to be less offensive.
We’re fighting for humility, but we’re giving up the fight for Truth and excellence.
Ben Franklin’s Battle for Humility
Probably one of the most famous stories of a man’s pursuit of virtue is Benjamin Franklin’s, because he tried to attain virtues on his own power and failed—humility, ironically enough, being the last of the thirteen virtues. It’s recorded in his autobiography:
My list of virtues contain’d at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride show’d itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinc’d me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavouring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.
But he soon realized he couldn’t keep it up. True humility evaded him:
I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.
So what he did was what we still do today: fake it till you make it, baby.
I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself…the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition…
And this worked great for him because it made him more friends:
The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.
The Difference Between Humility and People-Pleasing
Our culture hates dogmatism: people hate it when you think you have the final answer to anything. Because postmodernism has stripped us of our absolutes, we are hyper-sensitive to them. Which is why being that guy is one of the worst things you can be today. And since this offends people so much, we Christians have learned to side-step the truth, to candy-coat it and make it more palatable to our fellow humans. We’ve learned, as Franklin did, to begin sentences with “I feel like,” and add in a couple “you knows” for good measure. We just don’t state our minds anymore. Which makes for a really funny dynamic as observed by this comedian in a clip I’ll never forget.
Look, I think saying “I feel” and “you know” is perfectly fine—it’s not a sin—most of the time, but I hear it bleed into conversations which should most certainly begin with “I know,” or “I believe,” and it makes me grieve our loss of passion, conviction, and meaning. We’ve bought the lie that this makes us sound humble, but all it does is make us feel better about being snarky, almost like saying “bless your heart” after everything.
Humility isn’t about creating a humble social persona, but about forgetting about your social persona altogether. We live to discuss events and ideas, not to watch ourselves discussing them. “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” You can be passionate and humble at the same time, so let’s get at least that straight.
Christians Who Remain Christians
Albert Camus, a 20th-century French philosopher, saw some of this passivity in the church (no doubt a result of the same well-meaning people trying to make the Truth less offensive), and he called it out. Camus wasn’t a Christian, but even he could recognize the junk that comes from passive false-humility:
I shall not try to change anything that I think or anything that you think…in order to reach a reconciliation that would be agreeable to all. On the contrary, what I feel like telling you today is that the world needs real dialogue, that falsehood is just as much the opposite of dialogue as is silence, and that the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds. This is tantamount to saying that the world of today needs Christians who remain Christians. The other day at the Sorbonne, speaking to a Marxist lecturer, a Catholic priest said in public that he too was anticlerical. Well, I don’t like priests who are anticlerical any more than philosophies that are ashamed of themselves.
We have to know who we are and why we believe what we believe—about anything. If you have an opinion, own it, otherwise give it back to the person you got it from and don’t try to pass that blank check off to your fellow humans in hopes they don’t blow the whistle on you. It’s true, our culture is offended by the Truth; and sure, let’s not add to that offense with our pathetic egos. But let’s not back down either. I think we need to address our humans with eye-contact and a firm handshake, not a cool, ironic shrug of the shoulders. And, as Camus said, I think that’s what they really want too.