One thing I love about God is his faithfulness to unravel a mystery. For me, they’re often mental.
How can I stop people pleasing? What is the proper venue to share the gospel with my friends? When should I stay silent and when should I speak up? How do I love without condoning? Am I being legalistic? Should I keep fighting for this old, strained friendship? How can I break my body image issues?
In the past year, these are all examples of mental and spiritual mysteries I’ve pleaded with God to help me with. (Don’t be too impressed. I only recently learned that I could even bring God in on my confusions. How asinine is that?) Sometimes He unveils the mystery all at once, like an epiphany. Sometimes it’s a slow reveal.
My journey to understanding the mystery of humility was the slow kind.
I knew that Christians were called to have humility. That if the truth of the Gospel got inside of me and started wringing me out, it’d be a natural byproduct. But it seemed like this mystical thing that happened to old, wise men with long white beards who had gotten the pious beaten out of them by life. Beyond the obvious things like not bragging, boasting and drawing attention to achievements, I didn’t get what it looked like.
It wasn’t until the early months of 2014 when I read this explanation by C.S. Lewis that I started to understand:
If we were to meet a truly humble person…we would never come away from meeting them thinking they were humble. They would not be always telling us they were a nobody (because a person who keeps saying they are a nobody is actually a self-obsessed person). The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.
WHAT. (Is how I felt.)
No wonder people are so knee-jerk to tell you, “Oh don’t be so humble,” when you shrug off compliments. It’s because you’re not being humble. Like me, they may not know exactly what humble is, but they can sense you’re not it. Isn’t is wonderfully counterintuitive that a person who thinks they’re a nobody is actually no more humble than a blubbering self-promoter? It may be more socially acceptable to be riddled with insecurity than puffed up with superiority, but both are symptoms of the same miserable practice: navel-gazing.
C.S. Lewis’ explanation floored me with two realizations: First, so that’s what the deal is with those people in my life who make me feel so special in their presence. It’s not just their extroversion or conversation skills, they’re actually interested in me like I’m interested in myself, all because they’re HUMBLE. An under-the-radar, in-disguise type of humble. (Actually, I suppose that’s the only kind.) Second, it’s not my introversion or reserved nature that keeps me from initiating conversations and friendships, it’s just that I am a self-obsessed blowhard who will only scratch someone’s back after they scratch mine.
Don’t ever underestimate the power of naming your issues. Just like a medical diagnosis, until you define your condition, you’re in a treatment stalemate.
In these early months of 2014, I was – like I had been for my entire adolescence – operating from an introspective conclusion that friendship happens for me after an organic moment of connection. An old boss and friend once told me that to know me is to love me. In other words, people aren’t too sure of what I’m all about until they get to know me, but once they do, they get it. I turned her well-intentioned observation into another proof point (read: excuse) for my behavior. I became unapologetic about how acquaintances interpreted me.
People translate my quiet smirks as judgment? People translate my intense working face as unhappy? Oh well, when they get to know me they’ll know better. We’ll have a moment and then they’ll get me.
My generation applauds this type of “self-acceptance,” and I had bought tickets to the celebration as well. I thought I knew myself well and had made peace with my personal journey to friendship. And after what I like to call 2013: The Year of The Introvert (thanks to viral TED Talks and Buzzfeed articles), I was feeling more confident than ever about this conclusion.
So I waited. I waited for these moments of connection that would transform a lifeless acquaintance into a breathing friendship. These moments for me took many forms. It could be natural conversation (whatever that means) that led to a good feeling about the other person. Or eyes meeting in shared appreciation for something awkward that just happened. These moments were interactions that broke the seal, giving me a hint of feeling known or appreciated by the other person, and made passing them in the hallway at work a little more comfortable. And if you’re thinking, ‘there’s nothing wrong with what you just described,’ you’re right. There’s nothing inherently evil about waiting for these moments or recognizing how they ignite friendship. That’s the thing about sin, it’s all about motivation, and what I started to realize after reading C.S. Lewis’ words is that I was badly motivated.
The truth is I wasn’t just waiting for a moment, I was putting the burden of new friendship on others. My heart’s posture was that of a swaggering, reserved introvert who must be approached and courted by prospective suitors. Of course, I didn’t realize this was how I felt. All I knew at the time is that small talk killed me and I actively avoided it. I waited to get coffee until the break room cleared out. I timed getting out of my car in the morning to create more distance between me and a coworker walking inside.
What if I don’t know what to say? What if I have to endure a silent elevator ride? Nope, I’ll wait for my moment with them. Once we have our moment, I’ll always know what to say. And if elevator rides are silent, it’s fine. Cause they’ll get me.
And despite the psychological proof points I had curated over the years to justify this behavior, I could sense something dark and broken about it. Although I wanted so desperately to be known and understood by others, I had no interest in satisfying that desire for another. (I now realize that’s the sickness I had sensed.) Looking back, the thought honestly never occurred to me that I could just probe into an acquaintance’s (or even a stranger’s!) day, weekend, or life. The truth is I didn’t like small talk because I wasn’t interested in others. And the reason I ran away from it was because of my prideful, insecure, miserable habit of – you guessed it – navel-gazing. So, I waited to be pursued. Life was a story about me and others were there for support.
That’s some heavy stuff to learn about yourself, all in one fell swoop of a quote. Just bandage me up and send me back out into the fight, right? Well, kinda. God let me chew on that idea for a while. With my new, more accurate radar for humility, I observed my undercover humble friends with a new appreciation. I took mental notes on the way they greeted people. I, for the first time, recognized their genuine interest in others. I realized that the reason they saw and verbalized the best in people was because without a fragile and ever-present ego interfering, they were free to do so. So just like with learning any other skill or area of expertise, I started imitating my (unknowing) mentors.
Obviously, I could only do so much.
You can’t will away your ego, and you definitely can’t fake genuineness. But imitating taught me a lot. I learned that although yes, I’m still an introvert who needs time to recharge and reflect alone, that those scenarios I used to run away from weren’t so scary or strained when I put getting to know the other person as the frontline objective. Introversion wasn’t my problem, lack of humility and interest in others were. People want to be known, and wanting to know them back takes the pressure off the smallest of talks (and makes them big).
Fast forward to Thanksgiving break.
I used my downtime to read some books, one of which was Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide To Creating Great Ads. It’s a great book. Luke Sullivan is quite the on-point sonofagun. In fact, I’d say I learned more about life than advertising. One of my favorite things he said in the book was this:
There are two types of people in the world. Those who come into a room and say, ‘Well, here I am!’ and those who come in and say, ‘Ah, there you are.’ Be that second type of person.
Just when I thought the resolution of humility couldn’t become more clear in my mind, Luke Sullivan, an irreverent advertising creative, dialed it up a few notches. Mind. Blown.
‘Well, I suck.’ I thought. ‘When I walk in a room I am so clearly the first type. How embarrassing. How gross. I should try to not be that way.’
This is where the desperate prayers started to come in.
God, I can’t do this. You can though. I’m so impressed with myself and don’t understand how unimpressive I actually am. Show me. I get paid to be interested in and to understand consumers, but I’m not interested in the real people in my life. Sometimes I’m even scared of them. Change me.
Fast forward again, this time to Christmas break.
I had ordered a bunch of books on Amazon, some for me, some as gifts for my friends. (So many that my husband texted me and said, “Amazon just notified me that you ordered every God book they have.” I literally LOLed. He’s a funny guy. I’m not saying that in a snarky kind of way. He really is.) One of the books I ordered for myself was Blue Like Jazz, a book that had been on my to-do list for years. In college, I quasi-knew this cool girl who had it listed on her Facebook as a favorite book. It had haunted me ever since with its potential keys to her coolness (more on her some other time), so I figured I better finally read it and put it to rest.
Guess what, it did have some clues to her secrets. Donald Miller’s writing is as cool as Christian gets. And of course, because God is faithful, the book rounded out my understanding of humility, particularly with this passage:
So much of what I know about getting along with people I learned from the hippies. They were magical in community. People were drawn to them. They asked me what I loved, what I hated, how I felt about this and that, what sort of music made me angry, what sort of music made me sad. They asked me what I daydreamed about, what I wrote about, and what my favorite places in the world were. They asked me about high school and college and my travels around America. They loved me like a good novel, like an art film, and this is how I felt when I was with them, like a person John Irving would write. I did not feel fat or stupid or sloppily dressed. I did not feel like I did not know the Bible well enough, and I was never conscious what my hands were doing or whether or not I sounded immature when I talked. I had always been so conscious of those things, but living with the hippies I forgot about myself. And when I lost this self-consciousness I gained so much more. I gained an interest in people outside my own skin. They were greater than movies to me, greater than television.
Can you imagine if we loved people like this, like good novels and art films? Better yet, can you imagine if CHRISTIANS loved people like this? Like they had characters, plots, and meta narratives that we desperately wanted to see develop and unfold? What a beautiful illustration of humility. I realize now God was revealing something bigger to me than the solution to my petty struggles with small interactions with acquaintances. (A testament to the fact that God is also faithful to evolve and elevate your motivations for improvement.) When you treat people like a good novel, it’s true, conversation never has to be small, strained, or a burden. But more than that, you’re treating them like they deserve to be treated. This is how you love others and how as follower of Christ, Jesus asks us to love. Thanks God, I get it now.
I don’t love people like this, God. Show me how. Make it real. I hope you don’t have to, but do whatever it takes.
As a P.S., I feel the need to say the obvious: I’m still in beta. I mean heck, despite my best editing efforts, there are probably (read: definitely) traces of my still fragile ego within this very post about humility. I’m not fully imitating my mentors, but I’m not fully genuine either. Bare with me folks. I’m under construction.