Most women head for the freezer to douse their break up pain in a quart of ice cream. When a young man calls it quits on the young and talented Taylor Swift (TS), it would appear that she leaves her ice cream spoon in the drawer, and reaches, instead, for her angry guitar. “Picture to Burn,” “Dear John,” and “Better than Revenge,” are just a few of her pop tunes that have let some schmuck (and the rest of the world) know that she will “never, ever, ever, ever,” be getting back together with him. Putting her grievances on display (along with the men who have caused them) has proven a lucrative career move for her.
Recently, I found myself smack dab in the middle of a conflict where I felt as aggrieved as an unrequited Taylor Swift. Over the years, I have chosen to search for the content of my articles at the cross roads where personal experience meets Christian tradition as well as the social sciences. So it was only natural, that this week, I would attempt to tell the story of that conflict, and the lessons that I have been learning from it. But as I began to tell my story, I quickly realized that what was coming out sounded a whole lot like a righteous TS song except no pretty melody.
Like TS, I have found that utilizing autobiographical material carries with it risks and rewards. Anyone who consults the library of personal experience for their writing is betting on the truth of that old maxim: “What is most intimate within us is also most universal between us.” The risk that comes with mining personal experience, is that the writer cannot always be sure that she or he has followed the journey down deeply enough to that place that is not only intimate, but also transcendent.
After two and a half decades of therapeutic practice, I have noticed that TS, and Dr. Tom are not alone in weaving stories around past experiences. To one extent or another, all of us are constructing autobiographical narratives all of the time. Existential psychologists, like Abraham Maslow, and Rollo May, have long noticed that, at our core, we human beings are meaning-making creatures. As such, all of us share something in common with an autobiographical song writer, or author. Whether we say it out loud, or just keep it to ourselves, the moment something happens to us, we begin to create a narrative to make sense of it. Over the last couple of decades, resilience researchers have been noticing that some narratives appear to buoy the human spirit better than others. These researchers and authors have noted that healthy narratives about one’s life are the heart and soul of resilience and adaptability.
In this Sunday’s Old Testament reading, the ancient author of Sirach (3: 17-18, 20, 28-29) asserted that an essential ingredient necessary for the construction of resilience-friendly narratives is humility. At a glance, humility seems straightforward and simple enough, but after even a little reflection, the demanding, and multi-layered nature of this virtue begins to show itself.
In contradistinction from humility, our ego, or false-self, tends to develop uni-dimensional, rigid stories in which we are always portrayed as the protagonist, and the causes of our conflicts and misfortunes lie outside of ourselves. By focusing on the data in this way, there is no room for learning or growth. Without humility, the right kinds of questions don’t get asked. Without humility, my Taylor Swift-like-conflict story would have remained the last word, and an opportunity to adapt and become Tom Wagner 3.0, instead of Tom Wagner 2.5 would have been blocked. And so, for now, my story will remain in the oven until it is more cooked. In its place, I offer you a reflection on humility.
Humility is that gentle, but firm virtue that asks us to take a step back from the reactive, automatic narratives that we construct on a dime to allow a more cooked, well-rounded narrative to emerge.
Humility edits our personal stories, removing the black hats from the villains, and the white hat from our own head. In life there are few purely bad, or purely good people…not even ourselves.
Humility asks us to take custody of our eyes, removing them from the “to do list” on our opponent’s side of the street, training them back onto the “to do list” on our side of the street.
Humility draws a circle around what we can change, and bids us to peacefully let go of what is beyond our control.
Humility bids us to step out of our own shoes and try on the shoes and vantage point of our dialogue partner, or opponent.
Humility does not demand that we agree, but she does demand that we recognize the intelligence, cogency, and humanity of the other.
Humility refuses reductionistic, black, and white explanations of causality. Humble relationships, families and organizations try to find systemic explanations for things rather than looking for the right person or thing to blame.
Humility coaches us that when someone has aggrieved us, we are to take a breath before we approach them, being open to hearing about the ways that our behavior may have contributed to the issue at hand.
Humility-infused families and organizations are aware that there are always multiple causes for any given phenomenon, and that few of us can be aware of them all. No one gets to the truth all by himself or herself.
Humility invites us to be thankful for corrective feedback, even when it comes in an unwanted package.
Humility invites us to be compassionate with ourselves when we have failed to exercise enough humility.