The Personalist Project

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a book called An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. I'm not sure what kind of advice I expected to read from this former commander of the International Space Station, someone who did countless interviews from space (including being interviewed by William Shatner) and whose space-earth duets and extraterrestrial performance of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" received millions of views on YouTube. There are traits you expect in ambitious men, assumptions you make of the kind of guy who grew up to fly fighter jets and become a test pilot; someone who, as a small town Canadian boy, set his sights on becoming an astronaut back when Canada didn't even have a space program. You expect a certain amount of braggadocio. You expect laser-focus, and stories of victories won and glories earned, and advice about believing in yourself, following your dreams, and aiming high.

What I didn't expect was the advice repeated over and over again within the book:

If you want to succeed in life, aim to be a zero.

The way to live well, achieve great things, and touch the sky is to focus on finding ways to do whatever you are doing well, without fanfare, without holding others back or pushing yourself forward. To aim, not to be the most shining star in the firmament or the most brilliant guy in training, but to simply find ways to promote common goals while staying out of the way and letting others have the limelight.

Watch, learn, and sweat the small stuff, and you'll build a foundation for better and brighter things, is the gist of the advice contained in the book. It took me a little while to recognize what I was reading because it is so rarely spoken about anymore. But another great man said much the same thing, a very long time ago:

"Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility" (St. Augustine). 


Recently, on one of my FB groups, someone asked what humility is, anyway? She knew it was important—St. Augustine tells us that humility is "the foundation of all the other virtues; hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist, there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance"—but she wasn't sure where the line was between being humble and self-hatred. Does humility just mean putting yourself last, no matter the cost to yourself? Are humility and self-care or self-worth incompatible?

At the time I didn't really know how to start defining humility, but I thought I could give a way to differentiate humility from self-hatred. I wrote:

Humility is (or ought to be, I think) accompanied by a deep sense of compassion. If it makes you more compassionate towards yourself and others—more aware of our common humanity and need for God, more grateful and joyful for God's goodness, then it is true humility. Self-hatred tends to spill over into intolerance and unwillingness to forgive both ourselves and others, and lack of faith in God's mercy.

But I didn't really know where to go from there. I tried turning to my favorite spiritual writer, Saint Francis de Sales. He writes about humility as emptiness or the absence of self-seeking pride, for:

An active effort to acquire virtue is the first step towards goodness; but an active effort to acquire honour is the first step towards contempt and shame.

A well-conditioned mind will not throw away its powers upon such sorry trifles as rank, position or outward forms—it has other things to do, and will leave all that to meaner minds. He who can find pearls will not stop to pick up shells; and so a man who aims at real goodness will not be keen about outward tokens of honour.

OK, so I know a few more things humility isn't. It casts out pride. It busies itself with substantive things—real virtue and goodness—and does not seek earthly honors and riches. But humility can't merely be an absence of a vice, the negation of pride. It could hardly be the "foundation of all virtues" if it did not have more substance than the vice it opposes. There must be a way to express what humility is in action, so that it can be incorporated into life as a positive goal rather than a negative one.

I knew if I set the question aside for a while, sooner or later I would stumble across an answer. I just didn't expect to find it in a secular book from a man who has avoided even identifying his own faith tradition publicly. But here, in the nuts and bolts of his descriptions of life in space, Commander Hadfield described the natural virtue of humility in action perfectly, including how it is not only compatible with, but depends upon and reinforces a sense of self-worth and ability:

We've all fixed the toilet in space (it breaks down regularly). We've all wiped jam off the walls (it has a way of floating off your toast and splattering everywhere). On the ISS you have to be ready, willing and eager to do every job, from the highest-visibility stuff right down to rewiring an antenna, because there's nobody else to do it.  

But if you are confident in your abilities and sense of self, it's not nearly as important to you whether you're steering the ship or pulling on an oar. Your ego isn't threatened because you've been asked to clean out a closet or unpack someone else's socks. In fact, you might even enjoy doing it if you believe that everything you're doing contributes to the mission in some way. 

Who would expect to find so many correlations between life as an astronaut and family life?

So here's the take-away: humility is not a negative virtue. It isn't putting yourself last, or putting yourself down, and it doesn't require you to be insecure or tell you that you are worthless. Humility is putting first things first. It is knowing that you serve something higher and greater than yourself; something outside the small, confined space of your own glory, comfort, or power.

Humility is knowing, as Hadfield does, that it is "worth it to sweat the small stuff. And even in my line of work, it's all small stuff." It's knowing that little things matter, and that saving others from sin, grief, or pain is worth the humiliation of revealing your own mistakes, however petty or embarrassing they seem to you—or, if you're an astronaut, sitting through days of post-mission briefing while experts pick your mistakes apart, because doing so could potentially save someone else's mission or life.

Humility is fixing the toilet and wiping the jam off the walls (right, moms and dads?), and doing so without complaint—perhaps even with enjoyment—because you believe that everything you are doing contributes to the mission in some way. Hadfield suggests you ask yourself, "what can I do right now to help us get to where we are going?" And then do it, without fuss or show.

Sometimes, that's going to mean choosing to do something hard or thankless. Sometimes it will mean putting aside opportunities for personal glory. But that's how an astronaut pierces the clouds.

That's how a Christian dies to self and rises with Christ.

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