Author and activist, Marianne Williamson, once made a surprising observation about human identity (which has often been mis-attributed to Nelson Mandela):
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world … As we are liberated from our own fears, our presence automatically liberates others.
Does the claim that you are brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous, make you feel uncomfortable? Previous religious instruction or life experience may suggest that we should be more meek or humble. It’s the meek, not the fabulous, who will “inherit the earth,” right? Williamson’s statement seems to skip the meekness part and jump straight to the inheritance!
Many assume that Jesus’ claim that “the meek shall inherit the earth” promises the lowly and dispossessed something to look forward to after they die. But Jesus speaks of an earthly inheritance, not a heavenly one. Could Williamson be inviting us to imagine inheriting the earth not as a future hope but as present reality?
“But a meek person would never claim to be ‘brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous,” you say. Well, what is meekness, or humility, anyway? Read the following statement, made by big time wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, to his estranged daughter in the film The Wrestler. Does this statement strike you as more humble or meek than Williamson’s?
I just want to tell you, I’m the one who was supposed to take care of everything. I’m the one who was supposed to make everything okay for everybody. It just didn’t work out like that. And I left. I left you. You never did anything wrong. I used to try to forget about you. I used to try to pretend that you didn’t exist, but I can’t. You’re my girl. You’re my little girl. And now, I’m an old broken down piece of meat… and I’m alone. And I deserve to be all alone. I just don’t want you to hate me. [The Wrestler (c) 2008 Fox Searchlight]
Robinson’s admission comes at a devastatingly tender and revealing moment in the film. Robinson has let his daughter down in ways that have hurt her and others badly. Now he seeks to make amends during a stroll along a New Jersey boardwalk. This scene serves as his confessional and brutal self-evaluation: “I’m an old broken down piece of meat.” Is this meekness? By modern understandings, perhaps, but not necessarily in the understanding of the ancients. While Robinson seems perfectly sincere in his self-evaluation, the ancient Hebrews might claim that it is exactly this evaluation that has created the hurt between Robinson and his daughter in the first place. Not long after Robinson’s confessional in the film, he will betray his daughter’s trust once again, this time permanently. If you believe that you are nothing more than an old, broken piece of meat, you are likely to act like it. How can you grasp or accept an identity that brings you and others alive in the world if the only part you’re willing to claim is the lowest part?
If you wonder what true meekness or humility looks like, the ancient Hebrews would point you to the prophet Moses. According to the Torah, Moses was “a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). Moses?! Isn’t Moses the one who courageously confronted Pharaoh in Egypt asking – no, demanding – that Pharaoh free the Israelite slaves from bondage? Is not Moses the one who, in the mythological imagination of the Bible, is said to have parted the Red Sea, boldly leading, and often goading, his people through the Sinai wilderness to the Promised Land? Moses was no wallflower, nor was he the slightest bit self-effacing or self-deprecating before any human being, no matter what the person’s stature. If Moses were meek or humble according to modern understanding, one would expect to find him before Pharaoh asking if there’s any extra work he can do.
The word “humble” comes from the Latin root, humus, or “earth,” which is also at the root of “human.” To be humble is to be “of the humus“ or earth. All humans are of the humus. Thus being humble implies not the slightest lowliness relative to other human beings. Someone who is of the humus is only lowly with respect to that which is above the humus: the divine. Moses impressed the Hebrews with his humility because the only power to which he would bow down was not Pharaoh (who was himself “of the humus“), but God. Allowing that power to call the shots reordered Moses’ priorities, gave him a call and mission “from above,” and put him squarely in his sweet spot – which is precisely where it puts us when we follow its voice. The fact that Moses became immensely powerful through surrendering his life into God’s hands is to be expected! If you wonder why, just look to those you know who live within their sweet spot – that place where a person’s unique gifts and talents converge with a sense of “call” or life purpose. Are their lives more, or less, powerful as a result? They may not be at the top of society’s social or professional pyramid, but, like Moses they tap into the only real power that matters, and thrive there.
Of course, being “of the humus” means that none of us are paragons of perfection. We constantly fall short of the ideals we set for ourselves and expect of others. We miss our mark, living far from our fullest power and potential, sometimes very far, for a very long time. Yet if we are to grasp true humility, we must be just as ready to claim the power and potential we were created with as we are the tendency to fall short of it. What does this power and potential look like for those “of the humus“?