When I was a child, I intuitively knew when something was too big for me to handle. If I wanted to go to the beach-some thirty miles from my home-I didn’t try to walk there, I didn’t try to drive there, I asked my mom or dad for a ride. Why, in working on my recovery, do I struggle with asking for help with issues that are too big for me alone?
As a child, I learned because I realized others had things to teach me. That capacity to learn lessened over the years. For over a decade I struggled to get sober because when I did attended Twelve Step meetings I assumed I was the smartest person in the room–a pronounced, self-inflicted, hearing impairment.
The answer to asking for help and learning from others is to develop a modicum that most elusive of traits, humility. F.B. Meyer said: “I used to think, that God’s gifts were on shelves–one above another, and the taller we grow, the easier we can reach them. Now I find that God’s gifts are on shelves–one beneath another, and the lower we stoop, the more we get!”
I didn’t break the seemingly unending cycle of relapse until I humbled myself and got a sponsor. I had to be beaten down bad by Lord Alcohol before I could get myself to acknowledge that I needed to ask another man to help me. I am so grateful I did.
But humility didn’t end with getting a sponsor. I had much to learn if I wanted to stay sober. And that meant I had to learn from others. When you’ve spent much of your alcohol-fueled adult life in a state of grandiosity–thinking you were smarter than everyone else–learning from others doesn’t come naturally. Fortunately, I was so beaten down when I got back to the rooms that I had the gift of desperation and listened.
Only one issue with the gift of desperation, it dissipates as you get healthier. Four years into recovery I was running the show again. No need to learn from others, no need to ask for a Higher Power’s help, no need for my bipolar medication. In no time I was off and running on a crazy manic high … followed by a humiliating fall.
Humiliation is not humility. Time for yet another lesson in humility. I am chalk-full of character defects. Twelve Step recovery involves taking a good hard look those character defects and that takes humility. When I take a look at myself I can minimize and downplay my own defects of character to the point where they are little more than mild, harmless quirks-nothing like the glaring defects I see in other people.
If I want to keep those pesky little defects at bay I need to ask for help from a power greater than me … and that means more humility. I started my journey through recovery humble, but then my ego took charge. My problems in dealing with life can often be traced to a lack of humility. By humility I don’t mean false modesty. Rather I speak of the right relationship with myself, with others and with God.
Saint Augustine spoke of humility being the foundation from upon which to build the structure of life. “The higher the structure is to be, lithe deeper must be its foundation.” In knowing my strengths and limitations, my proper relationship with others, and my proper relationship with a Higher Power I choose to call God, I find strength. Humility should not be confused with weakness.
Years ago I had the pleasure of working with a programmer I considered to be a genius. Whenever there was a complex problem I’d take it to him. Asking about his knack for troubleshooting the seemingly impossible, he tipped me off to a little secret. “When I get stumped, and I get stumped a lot,” he said, “I simply take it to God and ask for help.”
At the personal level, humility means not thinking too highly or to meanly of myself. It’s getting right- sized. It means, on occasion, having the correct perspective of self that allows me to put up my hand and say I need help. Humility, that elusive component of character, allows me confess my errors, retrace my steps and ask where could I have done better.
But I have to be careful not to slip into false humility. False, hypocritical humility is where we make out as if we are less than we really are. Humility is not cowardice or weakness. True humility has a component of self-respect in which we think neither too highly or too lowly of ourselves.
In this classroom called life, the lesson that I am most asked to repeat is that of humility. Too often I slide into a vain self-satisfaction, complacency and that most physically unnatural act of patting myself on the back. But it’s all about progress, not perfection. I may find myself in the humility classroom on a regular basis, but each time I learn a little bit more.
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