In his inaugural address, Nelson Mandela suggests that false humility hurts us just as much as false pride. His words: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that frightens us.
We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are born to manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us. It's in everyone, and, as we let our light shine, we consciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
That's an important, gospel corrective to our common misunderstanding about humility. Spontaneously we tend to think of humility as self-effacement, self-depreciation, as never blowing our own horn, as always first waiting to be asked before we step forward to offer our gifts. We identify humility with non-assertiveness.
There's a lot of truth in that but, as someone once said, a heresy is something that's 98% correct. The other 2% is what hangs us. That's the case here. Humility is, in fact, a healthy self-effacement and non-assertion. But then it becomes complicated. Self-effacement is not self-depreciation and indeed there's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
Because our gifts and talents are meant to help others, just as their gifts are meant to help us. To hide our light under a bushel basket serves no one—others, God, ourselves. That's precisely what Jesus warns us about in the parable of the talents. When God gives us a gift, God expects a certain return. To hide our talents, as the parable makes clear, is perilous to self and not very pleasing to the one who gave those gifts.
We already know this through experience, painful experience. When we self-depreciate in the name of humility, or for any other reason, we might fool people around us into thinking this is virtue, but we never fool ourselves. Whenever we hide our light, we generate a lot of rage, bitterness, and envy inside of ourselves.
When we play small, however moral and noble the intent, another part of us begins to enrage. Why?
Because what we are doing fundamentally belies who we are. We are in the image of God, special, unique, fabulous, gorgeous, talented. When that part of us, that deep part, is bullied by a good moral idea gone awry (humility gone false) it does not acquiesce in calm and serenity. It enrages, becomes bitter, jealous, and frustrated at being forced to live a lie—even if it still says all the right things.
My own dad was not an educated man but, like many others whose souls have been forged in the desert of the prairies where a harsh beauty and a lonely isolation give everyone sufficient constrictive time in the wilderness, he was a man of wisdom. One of his quips ran this way: “Whenever you see someone who's always angry, take a look at that person. Because it's always someone who's very bright, with lots of talent ... it's just that he or she hasn't found a way of offering that in a way that people can receive it.” A prairie perspective on Jesus’ parable of the talents!
It's easy to misread this parable, thinking that the king arbitrarily punishes the servant who hid his talent. My dad's angle suggests something else, namely, that the punishment is not arbitrary but intrinsic, like a hangover to drunkenness. The “beatings” the parable talks about are what we do to ourselves whenever we hide our light under a bushel basket because one part of us then finds it intolerable to be in a situation wherein we are all talented-up with nowhere to go.
What is genuine humility? Real humility self-effaces, but does not self-depreciate; it is not assertive, but it does not slink away in unhealthy passivity; it is not showy and exhibitionist, but it does not hide its light either.
We are humble when we live in the face of the fact that we are both dependent and interdependent. We are not ipsum esse subsistens, self-sufficient Being, God, nor the centre of earth, nor intended to be that centre.
But each of us is a child of God, fabulous, unique, talented, asked to set forth our gifts on the table of life, as a gracious host might put food on the dinner table. Nelson Mandela is right, there is nothing enlightened, or God-serving, in false humility. Moreover, as Jesus' parable of the talents suggests, hiding one's talents doesn't exactly produce happiness either.