Most writers are saturated with humility, especially those who actively submit their work and courageously collect rejections. Accepting this lack of reinforcement as an inevitable aspect of the writing life, they reveal a maturity that is literarily unpretentious.
On the other hand, there are some who publicly tout the most modest of accomplishments as great feats. By their own account, you would think it’s merely a matter of time before they’re polishing their Pulitzer or Nobel Prize in Literature.
The following notes on humility are for the benefit of the latter category of authors.
C.S. Lewis was a scholar abundantly acquainted with literary pride. He was also a Christian saint (in that biblical sense wherein it applies to all who place their faith in Jesus). As a disciple of Christ, Lewis recognized pride is toxic.
He wrote much about the subjects of pride and humility. Among his wisdom on the subject, is the observation that we must not allow our circumstances to shape our character in negative ways. In “Williams and the Arthuriad,” he illustrates this by discussing different sorts of roles in a play. His comment about “false modesty” is particularly astute.
What but to thank God for the “excellent absurdity” which enables us, if it so happen, to play great parts without pride and little ones without dejection, rejecting nothing through that false modesty which is only another form of pride, and never, when we occupy for a moment the centre of the stage, forgetting that the play would have gone off just as well without us . . .
Lewis also offers an antidote to pride. One that well suits the title of this column. “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” (Mere Christianity)
A 500 Year Old Prescription
Nearly a half millennia ago, Martin Luther reluctantly allowed his writings to be gathered together into a collection, for which he wrote a preface. It was that introduction I recently encountered.
He elaborates on the proper way to study theology, based on principles in Psalm 119. After reminding readers that we must possess humility to submit ourselves to God’s word, he tacks on a vivid warning. It is quintessential Luther.
These words apply not only to theologians, or even to those addressing “religious” subjects. They should be of interest to all who consider themselves writers.
If, however, you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing, because you have done it beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it—if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears.
Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, “See, See! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well.”
That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, in that heaven where hellfire is ready for the devil and his angels.
To sum up: Let us be proud and seek honor in the places where we can. But in this book the honor is God’s alone, as it is said, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” [I Pet. 5:5]; to whom be glory, world without end, Amen.
Thank you, Doctor Luther, for the warning to periodically check my ears. And thank you as well, Doctor Lewis, for your inspirational modeling of humility.
An Important Exception
While humility remains important, in unbalanced doses it can make individuals vulnerable. The story of Puzzle the donkey in The Last Battle illustrates this fact well.
There were very few Talking Beasts or Men or Dwarfs, or people of any sort, in that part of the wood, but Shift had one friend and neighbor who was a donkey called Puzzle.
At least they both said they were friends, but from the way things went on you might have thought Puzzle was more like Shift’s servant than his friend. He did all the work.
When they went together to the river, Shift filled the big skin bottles with water but it was Puzzle who carried them back. When they wanted anything from the towns further down the river it was Puzzle who went down with empty panniers on his back and came back with the panniers full and heavy.
And all the nicest things that Puzzle brought back were eaten by Shift; for as Shift said, “You see, Puzzle, I can’t eat grass and thistles like you, so it’s only fair I should make it up in other ways.”
And Puzzle always said, “Of course, Shift, of course. I see that.” Puzzle never complained, because he knew that Shift was far cleverer than himself and he thought it was very kind of Shift to be friends with him at all.
And if ever Puzzle did try to argue about anything, Shift would always say, “Now, Puzzle, I understand what needs to be done better than you. You know you’re not clever, Puzzle.”
And Puzzle always said, “No, Shift. It’s quite true. I’m not clever.” Then he would sigh and do whatever Shift had said.
Fortunately, Puzzle’s simple humility is ultimately vindicated. Even while he is the instrument of a terrible hoax, his guileless trust in Aslan preserves his innocence. It is a powerful story, worth reading even if you have never touched the Chronicles of Narnia.
In the same way, God watches over his children who are humble. He becomes our champion and delivers us from those who would do us harm. Blessed indeed, are the meek.