If you’ve been following Messiah Magazine for a while, you know that we’ve been talking about humility—the middah, or “character trait,” on which all other character traits are built.
To recap, humility is rooted in an accurate assessment of ourselves. Humble people can acknowledge the good in others without feeling that they are diminishing themselves. Humble people honor and value the opinions of others without becoming doormats. Humble people are not territorial or possessive about things, people, statuses, or positions. Humble people can take criticism without falling into self-loathing. Humble people are not afraid to apologize, nor do they feel the need to justify their every action.
In short, humble people are too busy making a difference in the world to be preoccupied with what everyone else thinks about them.
But how do we get there?
The first step in developing genuine humility is to undertake a little bit of self-analysis. I don’t mean that we should beat ourselves up about our lack of humility—this is to swerve from the ditch on one side of the road only to end up in the canyon on the other side!
Instead, we should honestly try to assess how much of our focus is on ourselves. In the practice of taking “every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5), we need to catch ourselves whenever we begin the self-perpetuating cycle of self-focus. We may choose to take stock mentally, but many find it helpful to keep a journal.
When we catch ourselves settling into a selfish pattern, we need to be proactive and think about our situation from a different perspective. Whatever gifts we have in intelligence, wisdom, property, money, and talents—any advantages we have in life, any experiences we have gone through—all of them are gifts from God that we have freely received. They don’t make us better or more worthy than anyone else, and a lack of gifting in any area doesn’t make us worse; we are who we are.
These gifts come with a responsibility: We must take inventory of our capabilities—what we can do for others—and begin to use these gifts to serve God and build his kingdom.
Take Your Place, And …
One technique I have found helpful is to write down the following sentence on a three-by-five card and say it out loud whenever I catch myself in the downward spiral of self-focus: “Take your place, and make room for others.”
Taking our place is both humbling and empowering; it is both freeing and limiting. Because it’s our own place, we can embrace it, grow into it, and explore it. But it’s not someone else’s place—we don’t have to compete with others, try to be someone we’re not, or pretend that we have gifts we don’t have.
For some of us, this concept will require us to step back, reassess how much we have taken on, and evaluate how we have unwittingly limited others in their ability to serve by elbowing our way into their spaces. For others, this concept will require us to take a step forward, exercise our gifts, and contribute, even if we have previously been afraid to fail or receive criticism.
To be clear, it’s okay to note our failings—this is healthy, and it can contribute to a more accurate sense of who we are and what strengths we have. However, we need to make sure that we also keep track of our successes when our contributions were helpful. Truly humble people know their virtues and strengths as well as their limitations.
Pray for Humility
Another technique I have found valuable is simply to pray. Prayer—if we think it through carefully—can be a way of training our minds and reevaluating our priorities as much as it is a way of connecting with God. In most siddurs, after the Amidah “standing” prayer, you’ll find a prayer that expresses the idea of humility clearly and succinctly. It was composed by Mar ben Ravina, and it goes like this:
My God, guard my tongue from what is harmful and my lips from speaking deceit. Let my soul be silent to those who curse me, and let my soul be like dust to everyone. Open my heart with your Torah and let my soul pursue your commandments. If anyone opposes me and intends harm against me, quickly nullify their plan and spoil their intention.
Let it be your will, O LORD, my God and the God of my fathers, that no person’s jealousy would be incited against me, nor my jealousy against others. Let me not become angry today, nor let me anger you. Rescue me from the evil inclination, and place in my heart submission and humility. O King, our God, bring unity to your name in your world. Build your city, establish your house, and complete your palace. Gather the exiles, redeem your flock, and gladden your congregation.
Act for the sake of your name. Act for the sake of your right hand. Act for the sake of your Torah. Act for the sake of your holiness. So that your beloved ones may be delivered, save by your right hand and answer me.
Praying this prayer three times a day is a millennia-old practice—a tried and true method of appealing to God’s mercy to help us change our character and train ourselves to evaluate constantly whether we are on the path of humility.