The Landscape of Humility

Breath

It takes difficulty breathing
Difficulty speaking
To feel the need
The power of speech
And the desire
Grows to be inspired
To breathe in air
And put down words
That can be turned back
Into breath
Through speech.

It takes trouble to feel the power
Of speech
As a former of the world
To lose that inhibition
– a stutter and a hiccough
All in one word
One thought that –

Poetry
Any poetic writing
Is a struggle to bring
The word
Back to speech
To structured breath
To plan
Wrought instead of simply expelled
Like a spoken breath
In vocal virtuosity.

Words have the power to lead us to action
To activities that drop us into contingency
From out of the realm of what can be.

I am wary of that power
Over myself
Words have
And can give
To me
Or some other
Over me.

continue…

In Breath, I wrote about the resistances to speaking that led to my writing. There’s another resistance that applies to both speaking and writing. The reluctance to examine certain things growing out of the fear that to do so would cause harm. Put this way it sounds noble, but like any form of martyrdom, at bottom it is an abdication of responsibility in the face of fear.

There is a cruel knot at the heart of the fear to harm – let’s limit this at least for now to verbal harm, not hurtful actions. We stop delving into the question, wincing at the tenderness we find there, as though on touching a bruise. There is a bruise there, but like all bruises it is the site of recent trauma. There is damage, and the need to clear it away for health to return.

There’s rot too. What’s rotten is our unwillingness to look beyond what may only be our own discomfort rationalized as concern for others. After all, in our reluctance to cause harm, how often are we only trading a superficial passivity for deeper hurt bound to surface later? How could avoiding an issue ever lead to anything else?

Still, this reluctance often descends over me like a fog. It confounds, confuses, and obscures. It is only visible to me as a lack, a hole in my perception, a true blind-spot. This awareness of an absence, an absence of clarity and drive, a lack of decision; brings with it a restless discomfort trailing off into anxiety. These toxins, you might think, would be enough disincentive to persuade me not to allow this condition to persist. If only it were that simple….

To return to breath, this feeling is like a smothering sensation, self-inflicted. It’s amazing how welcome it can feel in some ways. In the mix, either as cause or result, or symptom of the anxiety surrounding it, there comes a strong pull of self-destruction. A toxic instinct to “solve” it all by removing the questioner – permanently.

We tend to be surprised when others, let alone ourselves, act irrationally, seemingly against self-interest. But this happens all the time. What I’ve called the “Hitler in the bunker” mentality is an extreme case, but all these cases trend in that direction. It is the End-Game of Narcissistic Megalomania, “If I can’t have my way, then all will die!” More modest, less “well-developed” Narcissists often take the easier way out and remove the blight on their will by eliminating the vessel of that will along with their perception of the world they’d like to destroy; this is the violence of suicide.

When we turn away, out of a reluctance to cause harm, from examining an issue that causes us discomfort; we enter into this dynamic. If a suicide is an under-developed mass-murderer, then a self censurer is a lazy suicide, unwilling to go “all the way,” we simply allow part of ourselves to die while part remains to wish we finished the job.

How much irrationally self-destructive behavior results from this? We hear a lot about a free-floating Death Wish, this seems a likely mechanism for its generation and maintenance.

We tend, in our more self-righteous moments, to see all the error in others, to feel some insuperable gulf between their condition – as unseeing, unfeeling, self-destructive automatons acting out some script like, “growing the GDP.” It might do us all more good to see how we all fit into a continuum, and how close we all are to slipping into a similar condition.

No one sees themselves as a villain in their own eyes. We tend to see this as nothing more than further proof of some others’ failings. Let’s take this realization fully to heart. If it is true, we are all equally close to finding comfort in our own victim-hood while broadcasting destruction with all we do. Sometimes what we fear exploring might just be this realization that we may be at fault no matter how hard we strive to avoid error.

This is the landscape of humility. We tend to jump to a call for humility when we see a great action of hubris out there in the world. It’s easy to cry out, “Shame!” and “demand” humility from the malfeasants at a time like this. When we do so, we skip right past humility into anger safely directed at some other. On the flip-side, we tend to feel some rising shame in ourselves and turn to some show of penance as a sign of our own humility. The self-consciousness and the mixture of piety and victimization we relish in at such times to guard ourselves from our humiliation – notice how in this context, all the rightness of humility evaporates in our self-justification. At such times we slip right past humility again into just another variety of self-serving behavior. In neither case do we inhabit humility, or truly promote its spread in this world.

The landscape of humility lies in the nooks and crannies, between and among everything we think and do. There are no long vistas or open roads in this landscape, only twists and turns, and climbs and falls, and stumbles and difficult risings; as we make our way. Since this is the most true model we have for reality, this path is the most useful to us. Out of this understanding grows our awareness of humility’s true value, and the reason for its existence, and our need to follow its practices.

Like breath, we cannot live without humility despite the illusion allowed for by the sometimes long lag between cause and effect. A short moment without breath reveals its dire necessity while a lack of humility at times – sometimes for very long times on the scale of a human life– may appear to show the opposite. Humility often seems a fool’s game, when all the advantages appear to lie with the swagger of hubris. The cycles of breathing are short, but humility’s cycles are no less sure. Those of us with the means to write or read these words today have been cocooned within a long pause in the apparent need for humility. That seeming break in cause and effect is coming to a close. We each have no idea how deeply or at what rate the price will fall due. The only aspect of this we have any say in is whether we will attempt with true sincerity to make room and time for humility. Without it we are victims lashing out and hastening and deepening the levels of destruction; with it, we may just find ways to connect with life and our place on this Earth, creating an acceptance of what is, and what will be, that is our true birthright.

Wringing ourselves clear of exceptionalism, that handmaiden to Narcissism and progenitor of Megalomania, is a difficult task, but also the most pressing task if we are to live and die within this world instead of fighting against an onslaught of reality we could never have truly expected to “win.” So much needs to be “unlearned,” what we now call Uncivilization; and so much needs to be re-learned, what most humans throughout time always knew but that we’ve forgotten. Scouting through the landscape of humility will show us a lot of what we need to know. That trail leads to self-respect, maturity, and no guarantees.

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4 thoughts on “The Landscape of Humility

  1. […] “Plato’s Socrates was shy about laying down rules; he merely asked questions. Part of the reason Socrates is indirect has to do with Plato’s view of what it means really to understand something; knowing has to take form with the knower himself, as something of his own possession – Plato’s own version of craft-knowledge. And part of his indirection derives from a challenge to his society.… For the Greeks… imitation led inevitably to competition. Paedeia and agon were inseparable.… Plato’s critique of this competitive display was that it foreclosed the possibilities of exploration, of dwelling in difficulties. He took seriously the starting point of arete, the assumption of one’s own insufficiency.” […]

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