I used to think “humiliation” and “humility” went together and that I couldn’t have one without the other. They are related words, both based in the Latin word humus, meaning “earth”. Even in English, both imply being low on some scale. While humility is a virtue, however, humiliation implies a vice.
Humiliation is the embarrassment we feel when we fall short of some standard. This failure can be from our own perspective when it seems to prove that we’re less than we thought. We can also be humiliated when someone else mocks us for falling short of their standards.
Pride puffs us up; we float above earth, reaching to heaven (but we usually turn upside-down). Humility teaches us which way is up and which is down; it keeps our feet firmly planted on true earth. If this is so, which will give us the biggest jolt when Gravity, the Great Humiliator, kicks in?
Gravity–the Great Humiliator!
I like to blame gravity for every humiliation I experience. Spilled some water? It was Gravity! Bird poop in my hair? Gravity! Unable to walk through a door without running into a wall? GRAVITY!
Mostly I do this because it’s fun to say things like, “Sorry I’m late! My mortal-frienemy Gravity has once again undermined all my best plans! *Shakes head and sighs* Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.” But it’s also true that humiliation challenges our ideas of who we are and what we expect from ourselves and the world. Gravity is one humiliation we have to face every moment of every day.
Humiliation, the fork in the road
Some have said humiliation is a sure road to humility. I’d be more inclined to call it a fork in the road. One way leads to deeper pride. The other leads to the beginnings of humility.
Each humiliating experience poses a problem to our idea of ourselves. When faced with that problem, we may dig in our heals. Instead of learning our limits, we may blame other people or circumstances (like gravity). Turning this way at the fork of humiliation leads us to further pride.
On the other hand, humiliation can lead us to humility. We must realize that the cause of this humiliation is pride: I’m an earthly creature, and littler than I thought. We must accept that we can’t control everything, that there will be times when, simply because of our lack of coordination, we fall. Then we have an opportunity to stay where we land, to plant our feet in truth. That is when humiliation can lead to humility.
Humility prevents humiliation
The virtue of humility prevents humiliation. When we have reached the boundaries of humility, we can never be humiliated. We will know ourselves, and our expectations will not be too high. We will always laugh at our mistakes, never blush. When we have our feet pointed in the right direction and resting on level earth, we will have no fear of lying in the mud.