By MARY HOOD HART
My parents tell me I was born a show off. When I was a toddler, and they took me to restaurants, I’d end up standing on the table, singing to an audience of patrons sitting nearby. (I can’t imagine enjoying a child who did that, but my parents insist my singing was well-received.) As the fifth of six children, the youngest of four girls, I was always seeking attention, and, like most babies in large families, I was successful.
Over time, however, I became introverted, falling into paralyzing shyness when I was 12. That period lasted several years. Indeed, it wasn’t until I went to college that I was able comfortably to converse with anyone but my family and closet friends. I think it was during the intensely shy period of my life that I developed false humility. False humility seems to be a trait more often present in adolescent girls, many of whom are prone to diminish their talents, rather then celebrate them.
False humility is also a great way to get attention — indirectly, of course. On the surface, those of us who are falsely humble are very self-effacing. We’ll act as if we believe our ideas and talents are inferior to others’. We’re often afraid to offer opinions or speak up for what we believe because we don’t want to be disliked or controversial. It’s almost as if we’re saying: “Who am I to offer an opinion? I’m certainly no one special.” Often, those aspects of our personality we secretly take the greatest pride in are those we deprecate the most. By publicly deriding our talents and gifts, we encourage people to stroke us and assure us we’re wonderful.
False humility can present itself in every aspect of our lives, in the workplace, our spiritual lives, in the way we view our bodies, even our relationships with others. And, because it is so gratifying to hear others reassure us that we’re really OK, false humility can become addicting. Like many addictions, it’s also easy to deny. I didn’t acknowledge it in myself until I was over 30. Because I worked hard to seem so modest, so timid, who would suspect me of wanting attention, of being swallowed up by pride? I certainly didn’t suspect myself of anything, but, maybe, low self-esteem. Yet once I recognized the true nature of false humility, I saw it for what it was — a sin. And I struggle with that sin everyday.
One thing that helps me in that struggle is to remind myself of the difference between humility and self-deprecation. Humility is defined as “a modest sense of one’s own importance.” What is modest about trying to gain attention all the time through unnatural timidity and self-effacing remarks?
What’s helped me most in recognizing this sin in myself (and recognizing sin is the first step to repentance) is realizing I am endowed by my creator with remarkable gifts. When I underestimate, even deride, his gifts to me, I’m being ungrateful, like the spoiled birthday girl who turns her nose up at countless, marvelous presents, calling them ugly and useless.
Realizing how ungrateful I am when I underestimate and undermine God’s gifts, I can begin to understand that because they are his gifts to me, I’m foolish to reject them. I must claim them in gratitude. Then, like a toddler singing in a restaurant, I can share them confidently with the world. How liberating to accept our gifts from God as naturally as a peacock displays his breathtaking plumage, not seeking admiration and praise, but simply because that’s what God intends.
There’s no doubt in my mind that God intends for us to use his gifts, through his grace, to build his kingdom on earth, a testimony of his love. To hide behind false humility is to create an obstacle in the plan. Truly humble people understand they are not the source of their talents. They realize their gifts are not of their own creation, nor are they deserved. As a result, they celebrate their gifts and share them frequently. They know that to do otherwise is profoundly ungrateful and offensive to God.
Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 6 to 14.