Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. . . To be nothing in the self-effacement of humility, yet, for the sake of the task, to embody its whole weight and importance in your bearing, as the one who has been called to undertake it. — Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings
There is a lot of talk in the wider culture about the importance of maintaining a healthy self-esteem. It’s true that when we despise ourselves we waste a lot of energy on self-loathing, and we may not push ourselves to be brave, loving, honest and faithful. If we don’t recognize the importance of our lives and the choices we face daily, we are less apt to make choices that bring us into right relationship with the earth, with our neighbors, with God.
But self-esteem can easily be misunderstood in a destructive way. I’ve wasted a lot of energy on trying to maintain a good opinion of myself, or trying to make sure others have a good opinion of me. Sometimes I try to accumulate an impressive list of Good Deeds, but when I’m focused on proving something about myself I have less attention to give to the people I am dealing with, the requirements of the task at hand, or the larger question of what work really is good and necessary. Sometimes the attempt to boost my self-esteem leads me to ignore or resent other people’s criticism, even when that criticism contains important truths.
I’m learning the importance of the humility that Hammarskjöld describes. This humility is based on a shift in focus. Instead of being obsessed with myself…my faults, my virtues, my image… I need to remember that I am not the center of the universe. I need to learn, as Hammarskjöld wrote elsewhere, to see myself as a means not an end. I need to love the people around me, do the work before me, keep watching for God who meets me in everything I meet.
When I have this attitude, my faults are not terrible blemishes to hide, but things to correct so that I can love and work more effectively. My good work is not a credit to cancel out my faults, but my gift to the world I love. My worth is not determined by my own self-regard or the opinions of others but by the fact that I am a child of, and a fellow worker with, God.