When one of us is insulted or vexed by another, he must not get angry. When one of us is asked for pardon by his brother, he must not be puffed up. If we are not willing thus to live together it is better for each of us to depart to whatever place he wishes. – Sayings of the Desert Fathers
I used to confuse being humble with self-deprecation and self-pity. Rodney Dangerfield made an entire career with one phrase, “No respect.” In fact self-deprecation is one of the tools comedians use to get the most laughs.
Think of George Costanza who knew that he felt like a total loser most of the time. But as soon as he got lucky with something like a great job with the Yankees or when his despised fiancée died due to envelope glue, he would suddenly feel like the universe was working in his favor alone. That was always short-lived before he would go back to feeling like a total loser. The picture on the left is how he spent his famous “Summer of George” decompressing after getting a severance package from the Yankees. It was so sad to watch that it was hilarious.
It never occurred to me that self-deprecation and self-pity had nothing to do with humility at all. There was no point in my life where I thought I was not just being humble. The less I thought of myself would mean that I thought of others more right? That seemed like a logical calculus. It was a delusion.
The truth is that the less or more I thought of myself the more I was drawing attention to myself. The more attention I drew to myself, the more selfish I was becoming. But as long as the reinforcement was there, attention in any form had a positive vibe to it. It was the adult expression of a three-year old temper tantrum. The three-year old cannot handle the fact that he or she is not getting what they want even if they have no clue what theyreally want. At some point all he or she wants in attention.
Getting attention from someone means we have distracted them from something else. It gives us some form of control over the people around us. If we watch the news or turn on the radio these days we see the same pattern. The more negative, loud, critical, nasty, whining the material gets the largest consumer base. It is highly distracting. It is a means of getting attention from others in a sort of fetish.
Feeling entitled to distract someone from something only to look at you and your plight is self-centeredness operating in its fullness. That’s why getting off the pity pot is so difficult. It is that reinforcing to an attention seeker. Feeling miserable is a kind of masochistic reward.
How difficult it is to function in the world where we don’t feed off of the attention and gaze of others. Many of us in this world of fifteen minute fame and media production have a perverted desire that we need to be famous to be relevant or useful. I know I have fallen into that trap. When I have seen others succeed where I have failed despondency and its reward gets replaced by envy. Envy logically works into anger and resentment. Resentment cycles back to despondency. It’s exhausting to garner attention then resent others for not giving it. No wonder three-year olds are so tired after a tempter tantrum. No wonder everything would unravel for George Costanza.
The saints and ascetics have a different idea about how to function in the world: seek no attention whatsoever. Don’t bring attention to yourself and be simple, quiet, hidden, and small. Speak only when necessary. Be temperate and slow to anger. Practice chastity. Manage expectations of yourself and others. Do acts of mercy in secret. And so on. Simple teachings for a complicated world.
The only problem we have is not the world itself but the broken heart. We’ve all got problems but not all of us have solutions. We are all spiritually sick to some degree, but not all of us know how to find healing. We are taught by many that the secret lies hidden deep within. The sort of modesty communicated in the quote above is one such solution.
Simple teaching, complicated world, most often difficult to practice. But it’s worth the struggle not to become as perpetually downtrodden as George.