A lesson about humility from the 1940s


While reading The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis a point leaped across the page at me seeming incredibly pertinent to 2017, and not like it was written in 1942 at all.

The Screwtape Letters is a satirical novel from the vantage point of a high-ranking assistant to the devil (or “Our Father Below” in the book.) Screwtape, the assistant, writes to his nephew giving advice on how to tempt the “patient” (unwitting human) away from the Enemy (God.)

It was the following passage (read it all, it’s so good) that caught my eye:

“You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. Some talents, I gather, he really has. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. … The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible.” (Pages 70-71)

The searing truth in these words hit me like an unliked Instagram post.

We’ve probably all seen selfies with captions like, “I’m so ugly but oh well #uglyface” or “Finally dyed my hair #bluehair #blackhair #ugly #sorrynotsorry.” Without fail, each post has comments affirming the poster’s beauty (because you’re beautiful!) Depending on how stubborn the poster is, she or he may or may not accept the compliment and deny their beauty in the comments.

So, like Screwtape wrote, denying beauty feeds self-absorption, and the person who thinks they’re humble is prideful. It’s a wicked game we play.

It’s damn hard to avoid altogether the trap of spending too much time peering into the mirror, criticizing our looks. Yes, we’ve all come to agree that physical beauty isn’t most important, but it can be a struggle to put it into practice.

The truth, though, is we are beautiful, but that shouldn’t be the focus. Post the selfie and then stop thinking about it. Accept compliments and in the same breath return them. I believe that we actually achieve humility through action, not detraction.

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