Humility vs. Humiliation: A Personal New Year’s Revolution

Article by Marie Monroe, Edit by Dee DeWitt


The Latin words humilis and humus have caught my attention in this season of introspection.  Low to the ground, of the ground, of the dirt …


I consider them in my meditations about what it means to be human, to be part of humanity and what type of human I want to be in this New Year of 2010 that fast approaches.


Old school exercises of finding root words echo around as I try on more words that fit:  humiliation, humble, humility …


Personal Revolution

I find myself reviewing recovery literature from 12 Step programs and growing in my understanding that true humility can not only be a saving grace, but a personal revolution.  True humility, I am reminded as I read, brings a sense of clarity about one’s self, deflating false pride and fantasy.  It brings us back home to who and what we truly are … and there we can celebrate our own humanity.


These are large and abstract ponderings, but important ones as I search for what growth I want to cultivate in this coming year.


Listening to where my mind and intuition goes is how I am keeping my eye on my personal star so I may travel with it to my new self.  For two days now, this schoolgirl exercise has settled in with me and I am following it to the root of this journey.



As a member of 12 Step programs for the past 20 years, I have learned that I am a work-in-progress.  At first, when struggling with depression and loneliness, I was afraid and ashamed.  How could I have so horribly missed the mark of what I thought was a good and successful life?  The prospect of sharing my pain with others was terrifying.  Shame bound me in silence and those rooms full of 12 Step members frightened me because I heard in those rooms that I must share my pain in order to become free of it.


I knew these groups were full of others like me.  I knew they struggled in adulthood with wounds that began in childhood just as I did.  I knew these groups would welcome me with unconditional and open arms, but I resisted, not wanting to be someone in need even though I was.  That was a veneer of pride that kept me deep in my struggle.  That was a very profound way that I denied my own humanity.


Confusing Humility with Humiliation

My journey to humility started in childhood, but then, I see now, I was confused about what this attitude of humility really is.  I believed humility to be a state of humiliation.  This notion stayed with me well into my adult years.  As a child of an alcoholic father, and a family that suffered in poverty because of his illness, I tried desperately to keep my pain a secret.  I was humiliated when someone saw the realities of my life.


I remember a night when I was 8 years old when the humiliation of my family’s plight finally peaked for me.  A schoolmate’s parents invited me to come along with their family to an evening school event.  They picked me up in front of our tiny, ill-kept house – a place I had hoped no one important to me would ever see.


I was thrilled to go to an after school outing and so convinced myself that it would be alright.  I would have fun; the family would be kind even if they did have to see where I lived. 


I did have fun, glorious fun.  The outing was wonderful!  Smiling, I rode in the backseat with my friend as her parents drove me home.  I was happy to be a part of this happy family and a part of my school’s activities.  My family was not able to go anywhere together.  We had no car and not enough predictability or stability to plan for such things.  There was no money to buy tickets to events.  So, often on evenings of school plays, ballgames or programs, I’d cry quietly to myself, yearning to go to be with my classmates.


On this particular night my secret had been revealed and nothing bad had happened.  Yes, that ramshackle house was mine, but no one seemed to care.  I was going home happy to have been a part of something good and fun and wonderful … this family accepted me and my home.


When the evening was over, we pulled over in front of our house.  I thanked the parents and said goodbye to my friend.  Before I closed the car door behind me, my friend scooted over and peered out at our house.  Still happy, I waited for what she had to say, one last giddy remark perhaps …


“I can’t believe you live here,” she said, looking past me to the house.  It was innocent, honest, a remark of a concerned 8-year old girl, but I was humiliated, humiliated to my core. 


My mother tried to console me, but I was inconsolable and didn’t dare tell her what had happened.  Somehow, at 8, I knew that she could not heal my humiliation.  I knew that only my father, sick in his alcoholism, held that key.  His illness had so many consequences for our family and my mother struggled to make things work.  If he were better, I’d think … over and over for many years this is how I hung on to hope for our healing, for how things would be better for us all.


Tears of Humiliation

As I sobbed in my bed that night, my father finally came to me and asked what had happened, what was wrong.  While I had held back with my mother, I immediately threw myself into his arms and told him, “They saw where we live!”


He held me until I couldn’t cry anymore and then he urged me to rest.  I remember his kind face, how he seemed to fill up with pain when he looked at me and how he nodded at me as he tucked me back into my covers. I knew he had finally understood what I had never said aloud, but what had lived in my heart every day.  There was comfort in his knowing.  That consoled me somehow.


A Humbling Experience

When I woke the next morning, my father was painting the front of our house.  It was two tiny rooms wide and so not much to paint, but even so, there was not enough to do more than the front.  I was delighted!  I asked him, in my own child innocence, how he could afford paint.  He said, “Whether you’re rich or poor, paint and soap don’t cost much.”  I felt like he had told me a secret, one to treasure and use to help me live.


The next afternoon I came home from school to find that he had torn up the floorboards of the porch and put new ones down.  I didn’t dare ask about how we could afford wood.  The prospect of knowing seemed scary somehow.  It seemed that something really dramatic must have happened that we could have a new porch.  I sat in a far corner of the yard and watched in amazement.  How did he know how to do that?!


The next day I came home to find the old floorboards had become a fence.  It was just a whisper of a fence – a few boards nailed together to stretch across the front of the house just a few yards, but it was a strong, beautiful statement that he cared, that he loved me and that he was making amends for his part in my pain.


Many years later I learned the difference between humiliation and humbling.


I learned that my tears that night when I was 8 were tears of humiliation, but that these same tears, the tears of a little girl that he loved, were a humbling experience for my father.  He humbled himself in service to me that week so that my pain would heal. 


I learned in my own journey of recovery that having a humbling experience is not the same as having a humiliated one.  A humbling experience is one that brings us back to our humanity and opens us up to what is human in all of us.  A humbling experience reminds us of who we truly are.  My father remembered who he was that night I cried out to him in my humiliation.  He remembered that he was my champion and my provider.  It was in sweet humility, the remembrance of his true self and the honoring of my humanity that he worked on our home so quickly and so diligently.  His humility made repairs to not only a broken down little house, but to my heart and spirit.


Sadly, my father died in his illness, but his love for me shone through his pain many times.  I treasure what I knew of his love.  The clean, bright and happy face he gave our humble house sustained me for many years.  It still does.  I never knew where the money came from, or how he managed when even food was scarce, to do those repairs.  I suspect he suffered in withdrawals to make it happen. 


Places to Heal

My own recovery has taken me many places to heal the pain of my father’s alcoholism and the pain of my own struggles with this family illness.  I have gradually worked on my own humiliation, had many humbling moments of clarity that brought me home to what is human and good.  I have learned, slowly, to love myself and my father with the type of love all people deserve. 


12 Step programs have taught me that humility will save me, that I can transform my humiliation into growth, progress and healing.  My father’s humility, now 47 years later, teaches me that still.  


It has become apparent, as I consider this New Year of 2010 and the transformations I hope to cultivate in its coming seasons, that wherever I am going; my father is going with me this year …


We are following that star of hope until we find home – our sweet, humble and true home, where repair is possible in the heart and in the spirit … where love shines in the darkest night.


An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:
A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
-American Indian Proverb


“Jesus taught us how to forgive out of love, how to forget out of humility. So let us examine our hearts and see if there is any unforgiven hurt – any unforgotten bitterness! It is easy to love those who are far away. It isn’t always easy to love those who are right next to us. It is easier to offer food to the hungry than to answer the lonely suffering of someone who lacks love right in one’s own family. The world today is upside down because there is so very little love in the home, and in family life. We have no time for each other. Everybody is in such a terrible rush, and so anxious … and in the home begins the disruption of the peace of the world.”
-Mother Theresa


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Posted on 31 December, 2009 in Goals, Making the Day Count
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