The Personalist Project

Pride is a stubborn insistence of being what we are not and never were intended to be. Pride is a deep, insatiable need for unreality, an exorbitant demand that others believe the lie we have made ourselves believe about ourselves.

–Thomas Merton, "The New Man"

The Merton quote above struck me as corresponding well with my personal definition of humility as desiring to know yourself and be known as nothing more than what you simply and truly are. It’s a definition that rejects posturing, fault-finding, and preoccupation with status. 

It's a tricky task, though, predicated as it is on true self-knowledge. Where does self-knowledge come from? I think it is natural for us to look to those around us to tell us who we are and what we are worth, and maybe the hurts we receive from putting our value so completely in others’ hands is what eventually drives us to build these false narratives around ourselves, to cushion our sense of self and sense of worth from the harshness of the world’s judgment. We all know, after all, that the world is harsh. The harshness of the world’s judgement is on display every day—in the way we respond to others’ sins and to others’ mistakes, in the ways we label and set people aside based on clothing or mannerisms or other externals things that we take as representative of internal reality, the way we so quickly believe ourselves to have seen to the heart of another when we still lack knowledge of even our own hearts. 

This harshness, it seems to me, is one of the things that drives us to the kind of pride Merton mentions. Rather than believe the caricature of the self that the world displays to us, we armor ourselves with a new lie, a new story which places the self at the center. 

“Every man is a hero of his own tale. Surely, Dr. Maturin, every man must look on himself as wiser and more intelligent and more virtuous than the rest, so how could he see himself as the villain, or even a minor character?”

–from “The Surgeon’s Mate” by Patrick O’Brien

So where is self-knowledge to be found, if not in the self mirrored to us, however imperfectly, by others? In part, I think humility must begin in inner silence. We need to set aside the narrative lenses and the projections and the interpretations we’ve so long defended and justified ourselves with, and be quiet within. 

As a navel-gazing introvert, though, I know from experience that we can’t stop there, gazing inward. Which brings us to Gaudium et Spes 24: 

"Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself."

So the Church, through Gaudium et Spes, tells us that self-knowledge is the fruit of self-gift. We will find ourselves if we focus on others, not looking towards ourselves, not even looking towards the reflection of ourselves in the other (self-gift isn’t a transaction or a loan; it’s not a payment for a returning ego-boost). 

We cannot observe a thing without changing it. When we look on ourselves overmuch, even at our reflections (cf. Narcissus) we wrap ourselves around with narrative and justifications and build up the story of a world in which we stand at the center of everything, and others have meaning and value only insofar as they relate back to our own self and self-image. 

As subject, as the medium through which I see and act, I cannot completely shed my awareness of self. The I-It and the I-Thou still require an “I.” So what does it mean to die to self?

A friend asked me, “Well. When you have to help someone who is drowning where is your focus?”

“On them, obviously, although you need awareness (peripheral, as it were) of your own body, your position and strength and capabilities, the surrounding conditions, and so on. So I guess there's the balance? Self-awareness, not self-focus?”

“Yup. You are always in the room to help the drowning man.”

Self-awareness is necessary to retain agency of act and moral choice, but it doesn’t require egoism. Occasionally, I may be the drowning man; occasionally, my entire being might be taken up in the struggle to keep head above water. But even then, I’m better off if I can raise my head up and look outwards to see you putting a hand out to me, so that as you pull me out of my distress, I am pulled also out of my egoism by gratitude. 

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