Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #3 – Happy Small

January 15th, 2018

When Saint Augustine, the inimitable Catholic theologian, was asked to name the most important practices to achieve love of God, he thought for a while, answered that there are three, and named them: Humility, Humility, and Humility!


I loved Augustine’s answer but had a lingering doubt: What exactly is humility? The dictionary defines humility as having a modest or low opinion of one’s self-importance, but I was not satisfied. A good definition must be precise. It cannot be too inclusive and thus encompass things that it should not. One who has low self-esteem and one who is co-dependent also have a low opinion of their self-importance, but how can a psychological aberration be included within humility? But if they do not constitute humility, then what is the difference between humility and these two conditions?


I came up with a simple definition of humility that I think is more precise and thus excludes psychological aberrations such as low self-esteem and co-dependence.  I define humility as “happy small.” In other words, a humble person has a modest opinion of him- or herself but is not disturbed, whereas someone with low self-esteem is miserable about their self-conception. Many psychological reasons may explain why a person with low self-esteem has such a negative outlook, but the ultimate difference between a person who lacks self-esteem and a humble person is that the one with low self-esteem is negative about their lack of self-importance and a humble person is not. A person with low self-esteem is seeking self-importance and thus feels disturbed—and unworthy—in regard to their perceived lack of importance, whereas one who is truly humble embraces their humble position out of a desire to serve others. Therefore, unlike a person with low self-esteem, a humble person sees no dichotomy between their self-ideal and their current position; there is no psychological aberration in their modest feelings.


Keep in mind that this is not an either-or proposition. One can at different times have feelings of both humility and low self-esteem. But one should do one’s best to make a distinction between them.


What about a person who is co-dependent? Are they not happy to serve their beloved? Isn’t that happy small? Yes, one may feel a certain pleasure in submitting to someone they accepts as greater, but in contrast to one with true humility they does not feel small or humble. Rather, because the person’s identity is linked to someone, their prestige is enhanced and their submission, or so-called humility, is connected to the ego, the desire to have distinction.


As these concepts are subtle, and I have long searched for an example to illustrate them. I thought of a good one: Happy small is like the mood of a young child in the arms of his or her mother. As the child loves the mother and the mother is a worthy shelter, the child feeling subordinate is a positive experience. Again, there is no dichotomy between the child’s self-ideal and his or her actual position of dependence, because it is natural for a small child to seek the shelter of a loving mother. Also, because that subordination facilitates feeling loved, the child feels worthy in this dependence. A child’s feeling of happy small is thus analogous to a soul’s humble relationship to God—and more generally to all genuine loving relationships. As stated in Augustine’s Christian tradition, unless one becomes like a child, one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.


I can see that this is a deep topic, far beyond the scope of this week’s column. I have tried to make these distinctions because in this world of proliferating abuse and low self-esteem people tend to suspect humility, fearing weakness and exploitation, when in fact humility is a sign of strength. Only a humble person can resist the impulse of the ego. Humility is a virtue. Let us all pray to feel happy small and honor the dignity of our humble souls.



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