Last Sunday, my 4-year-old granddaughter, Layla, caught more fish than me again, like she did two months ago when we visited a farm pond. My reputation as a highly skilled fly-fisherman is at stake.
I suffered a further indignity at the dinner table (that’s the noon meal in our farm household). I sat next to Layla’s 2-year-old sister, Ana, who had consumed a mighty meal I cooked.
Ana’s tummy stuck out below her stretchy top. Patting her bare midsection, I announced to everyone around the kitchen table, including the two dogs underneath it waiting for scraps, that “Ana has a big tummy.”
Layla stuck up for her sister, proclaiming, “No, she doesn’t.”
“Yes, she does,” I countered, trying to win some recognition for the hearty food I had prepared.
Layla settled the argument: “It’s not as big as your tummy!”
Everyone laughed uproariously, including me. The dogs barked affirmatively. Although I felt like crawling under the table with them, I had it coming.
My tummy is bigger than Ana’s, and I should not have been reaching out for praise. As I thought about this, I realized the episode was a lesson in humility, as much as it was funny and enjoyed by all.
The word humility has a Latin origin, humilitas, which means not self-important and well-grounded. The word draws on humus, which in Latin means earth, and in English is the term for the rich ground derived from decayed organic matter.
Humility does not have a connotation of weakness, self-denial or self-blame, although it is sometimes thought of in that fashion.
Perhaps the word “humiliate” contributes to the misunderstanding of true humility, for Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines humiliate as actions that cause a painful loss of pride.
Most cultures and religions in the world have something to say about humility. Judaism teaches that humility involves acknowledging our own capacities, not for self-gain, but to serve others.
The British Christian writer C.S. Lewis observed: “A really humble man will not be thinking about humility; he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
According to the Islamic scholar Waleed Basyouni, “Humility is not to think less of yourself, but to think of yourself less.”
A Mennonite farm couple and their family taught me about humility when I visited them for a weekend several years ago. They wanted help with a behavioral health concern.
When I drove my Jeep down their farm lane and entered their farmstead on a wet, late-March afternoon, a 10-year-old boy ran to my vehicle and greeted me.
His parents and an older sister were milking the family’s dairy cows; it was his assignment to show me around. He proudly pointed out the geese he cared for and found two large white eggs which we enjoyed for breakfast the next day.
That evening, the husband and wife told me about her father, who lived upstairs next to where I would be sleeping in an adjoining bedroom. He already had eaten supper and was in bed.
The aging gentleman, they said, often cursed loudly and wandered around the house naked. When he accompanied them to church meetings or into town, his swearing attracted curious stares. What could they do?
To me, it sounded like Alzheimer’s type dementia. That night I heard the gentleman strolling around his bedroom, banging into things and cursing.
The next day, all five people joined me in my Jeep instead of driving their horse-drawn buggy to attend church services after completing their morning chores. The elderly gentleman swore as he stumbled into the meeting house, but he refused offers of help.
During church services, with the women on one side and the men on the other side of the center aisle, my hostess’ father yelled loudly; soon a stinky smell emanated throughout the sanctuary. His daughter took him to the outhouse to clean him up.
When they reentered the meeting house after a change of clothing, the congregation voiced loudly enough for all to hear, “Here, here.” No one was embarrassed.
After the service when we were back at their home, the husband and wife asked me what I thought of the situation with her father.
I suggested that the family could consider medication to reduce their loved one’s lack of control over his inappropriate verbalizations and behaviors, and I explained Alzheimer’s disorder.
They told me God made him this way and that they should not use medications, just like they should not alter their environment with insecticides and herbicides, or use hormones to make their cows produce more milk. They thanked me for coming to see them.
They could live better accepting what was placed in their life paths and learn from it. I learned that humility is to embrace what we don’t want to face, with joy.
Dr. Mike Rosmann is a psychologist who lives on a farm near Harlan, Iowa. Contact him at: email@example.com.