“I stand here today humbled by the task before us”

inaugurationkeyholeHumility.

I had never considered the virtue of humility, the necessity magic that is conjured by being humble, until I began working with Caroline Myss’s book about Teresa of Avila’s theology, Entering the Castle.

Raised in the 80s age of self esteem – you can do anything, sky’s the limit, everyone is an individual snowflake worthy of accolades and advancement – humility was never considered a noteworthy skill. Who had time to learn what humility was when there were so many dreams to be chased and so much self promotion to be done ? The only way to get into college and then get a good job and be any sort of success at all was to learn young and learn well: you need to constantly remind the world that you are unique and worthy.

Slowly, the recognition that humility is in fact a virtue, not just the fall back plan for quiet kids who’ll never win the best prizes, has started to color my life. If you know me in the flesh, I’ll let you be the judge of whether that approach is really working… At least I can tell you I am thinking about it!

Humility has come to mind all week because I am still struck by the very first line of Barack Obama’s inaugural address: “I stand here today humbled by the task before us.”

Part of our new president’s mystique is his quiet confidence, his even demeanor and delivery, his deep belief in himself that allows him to move from this place of humility. We can all pray that this quality endures in him so that he can open his heart and mind to other perspectives and continue to work with the common good as his ultimate goal.

It is becoming more and more clear that humbleness not just an attitude for monks and scullery maids. Taking humility beyond an interior dialog with the soul and watching its practical application on the stage of presidential politics makes this spiritual work make a new sort of sense.

Like I said, humility never meant much to me until a couple of years ago when I picked up Myss’s book. I am left to wonder how many other brilliant words and ideas like that still circle around me, as yet ignored and unacknowledged. I know I cannot get hung up on all of the visions that have not yet revealed themselves to me – that is a sure way to madness, looking desperately for the next moment of enlightenment. It just inspires me once again: this journey through life offers so much promise, such evolution of the mind and soul, so many opportunities to look at this adventure of living afresh.

A couple more bits of wisdom from that incredible speech on January 20:

inaug-speechAs we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

A Sunday Drive Toward Reconciliation

This weekend my husband and I began the search for our first home. Dreams and make-believe were layered in with the grown up panic of 401K withdrawals and credit scores. We laughed and drank too much coffee and wound our way through the country lanes and modest neighborhoods that occasionally gave way to old orchards that now nurtured Hummers and McMansions. It was a day of escaping from ourselves completely even as we made plans that would structure the next phase of our lives.

In the same way that I lost track of all that I would normally consider essential while planning a wedding (a pedicure chosen over the time to cultivate some inner peace, etc.), I realize now that I am just as likely to lose sight of the ideals that cover these pages in the process of buying a house. In the same way that I am tempted to invest in traditional stocks whose profits are derived from guns (defense industry) and drugs (pill pushing, um, I mean medical innovation) and deforestation (development) rather than the “social choice” plans with low dividends and high feel-good points, I am guessing I will consider trading energy efficiency for a lower down payment.

The fact that life is a process of constantly balancing needs and wants, ideals and deals is well established. For me, I also recognize it as a perpetual act of reconciling my reality with the pictures I can paint of my perfect world in which environmentalism did not come at the cost of foregoing an extra bedroom and sound financial decisions were not based on taking every penny the bank would offer.

But then I remember the Sacrament of Reconciliation and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the act of reconciling invoices and payments. Penance and nation building and accounting all wrapped up in one word. I had to turn to my friends at Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: rec·on·cile
Function: verb
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French or Latin; Middle French reconcilier, from Latin reconciliare, from re- + conciliare to conciliate
1 a : to restore to friendship or harmony <reconciled the factions> b : SETTLE, RESOLVE <reconcile differences>
2 : to make consistent or congruous <reconcile an ideal with reality>
3 : to cause to submit to or accept something unpleasant <was reconciled to hardship>
4 a : to check (a financial account) against another for accuracy b : to account for
synonym see ADAPT

It is beginning to seem that “reconcile” in all of its forms is the constant thread binding my ostensibly disparate planes of existence. I reject the connotation of the term that links it to the need for an Act of Contrition, but if I can step back and realize it is possible to examine all that I am and have been in light of who I wish to be, it seems possible to escape the mantle of guilt (and that painful memory of my first penance at age seven when I was afraid to cross myself because the chocolate I had been clutching in my hand while waiting for the priest had melted through my fingers).

How strange to understand that a single verb can encompass both the restoration of friendship and harmony and the submission to the unpleasant, but is it such a leap to say that the search for harmony in the face of suffering is itself the process of living?