Humility is the most important of the Seven Heavenly Virtues, which is why it has been chosen to end this series. Much as pride is often seen as the root of all the Seven Deadly Sins, humility is in many ways the attribute which breeds the rest of the virtues. Without it, we would not pursue diligence or temperance because we would fail to see the importance of justice. We would also not exhibit chastity, patience, charity or kindness, as we would unduly favor our wants and needs without restraint or care for others.
Through humility, we are able to see the error in such ways. The selfishness we displayed when in active addiction or alcoholism becomes much clearer, and we discover that we cannot go back to such a way of life if we are to become the truly good people we internally know ourselves to be. In this way, humility is much more than the opposite of pride—it is the key to casting vanity out of our lives for good, provided that we are able to maintain a humble nature while working our program of recovery.
In seeking an understanding of humility, we will find that it is at the heart of many teachings we may gain from AA or NA—the Twelve Steps, the Twelve Traditions, the Serenity Prayer, the Declaration of Unity, etc. More importantly, we will see that we absolutely cannot return to pride if we wish to stay sober. As we conclude our series on the Seven Heavenly Virtues, take stock in the gravity of everything we have to lose if we are not fervent in our efforts to cast away pride and embrace a more humble way of life. For the recovering addict or alcoholic, it may easily be a choice between humility or death.
Defining Humility as a Heavenly Virtue
Many confuse humility with humiliation, assuming that they have known the former through their experiences with the latter. But humble living is about more than just guilt over our past failures and wrongdoings. It is not self-hatred, but rather the ability to perform a grounded analysis of the self in the pursuit of our own truth. In this sense, humility is more than the ability to give up our false pride—it is also the ability to recognize our self-worth on a more realistic level.
In fact, Christian teachings believe false humility to be akin to a vice. We should not go digging for compliments, feigning humility just so that others can build up our egos. Nor should we be overly obsequious, failing to see the many gifts that we have been given as human beings. While an excessively servile nature may not be a sin of vanity, it can perpetrate such narcissism in others. Inflating the character defects of those around us is no better than refusing to remove our own, and the possession of true humility should prevent us from excessive self-effacement.
While those with humility should not allow themselves to over-inflate anyone’s ego, we should recognize their positive attributes when they are apparent. Those with humility should also recognize their own limits, be they limits of one’s abilities or of one’s own authority. There will always be those who have authority over us, and this is to be respected. Bucking the system without due cause (i.e. when it will not fulfill the virtue of diligence) portrays an immense degree of arrogance. It is not a great look for us, and we will often find ourselves isolated if people see that we are frequently lacking in humility.
We are not perfect. We are not all-important. We are simply human beings who require humility in order to juxtapose our strengths against our shortcomings. As we attempt to make our way in the world, this knowledge of self will be one of the greatest tools we have at our disposal. It will prove beneficial in our jobs, our family lives, our social relationships and our recovery. But to fully understand how it will benefit our recovery, we may turn to one last example of a somewhat religious nature.
Humility’s Role in Addiction Recovery
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a handsome young man who denied those who professed their love to him. Eventually, he came upon his own reflection in the water and became deeply enamored by his own visage. Upon the realization that he could never fulfill his desires in the fashion one might consummate their love for another human being, Narcissus committed suicide. His name became the inspiration behind narcissism, the concept of an extremely self-centered nature. But if one were to truly use this myth as a reference for vanity, we would realize that narcissism is more than pride—it is pride to the point of self-destructive isolation.
During our years of active addiction, many of us lacked humility in a similar manner. We pushed away those who loved us, often in the hopes that they would leave us alone forever. Yet we were not always so in love with our reflections. Over time, our self-centered natures grew into resentments, hatred for who we had become. Sometimes this anger was twisted, and we even grew to hate those we blamed for “allowing” us to become this way. We would up alone, with an extremely warped view of ourselves and of the world at large.
Through the fellowship of recovery as outlined by the First Tradition, we are able to regain a sense of unity and camaraderie among those who have shared similar experiences. Upon reaching Step Nine, we will begin mending relationships with those we have pushed away. To do this, we will require no shortage of humility. We must see where our past shortcomings have resulted in disappointment, whether felt by others or even by ourselves. Then, we must see that we actually have a great many strengths, and that we are capable of seeking a solution to our problems.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to these efforts will be the need to develop a certain level of willingness. While Step Three dictates that we must practice kenosis and surrender our will to something greater than ourselves, we will still have to push ourselves to do the right thing when we are nervous or uncomfortable. Humility requires a great deal of true faith if we are to pull it off, as it can be difficult to put ourselves out there once we have become aware of our weaknesses. It will be especially difficult if we set expectations for ourselves that we fear we cannot meet. For this reason, we should never form expectations regarding whether or not our amends will be accepted or our family’s trust renewed. We must simply continue to practice humility, and maintain faith that things will work out as they should.
Learning to Favor Humility Over Pride
The above paragraph probably makes it sound as if there isn’t much confidence involved in the practice of humility. But if you pay careful attention, we are actually saying quite the opposite. If we truly have faith, then we should be able to trust that our strengths outweigh our defects, regardless of whether or not anyone can see it. This is not pride, as we are not trying to convince others or ourselves that we are better or more important than we truly are. We are simply realizing that, even if we are not always accepted by others, we are still good people if we know ourselves to be.
It should be much easier not to return to our narcissistic ways if we can make this realization in earnest. Through the practice of Step One, we can admit that we are powerless over our disease. But through the rest of the steps, we will see that we actually have great power to enact change in our own lives when we allow others in our support network to help us. No longer are we attempting to go it alone and refusing to ask for help when it is needed. At the heart of humility is acceptance of our circumstances, and acceptance is the well from which our newfound power will spring.
When we view humility in this light, we come to realize that we do not need pride anymore. Once we have accepted our shortcomings and begun our work to resolve them, we will gain much more from our efforts to improve than we ever gained from false declarations of greatness. We may slip and catch ourselves behaving in a vain or pompous manner from time to time, but we will get much better at catching ourselves in the act by the time we reach Step Ten. Until then, the best we can do is admit our slip-up to someone who cares about our recovery. This accountability will help us, as we will be more careful not to behave so arrogantly in the future—if only for the sake of not having to admit it again.
Humility is not forged overnight. It is experienced in short, intermittent bursts as we learn to discover what triggers our displays of pride and selfishness. As we learn these triggers and work to overcome them, humility will begin to feel less like work and more like an extension of our true nature. Because once we have hit a stride in our recovery, then that is precisely what it will be. And while we should never cease living one day at a time, it is simple fact that humility will make long-term sobriety much easier. With humility in our toolbox, we can keep our feet on the ground and a solid head on our shoulders as we go out to lead lives of virtue. After all, it is virtue that gives our lives purpose. And with purpose, we will never run short on reasons to stay sober.