This blog series on Appalachian Spirituality is a mixture of my personal religious upbringing tethered to reflections made on Appalachian culture in Loyal Jones’ book, Appalachian Values (1994).
“You’re not that special.” I can hear these words from my childhood. These words were not spoken over me disparingly. Instead, they were spoken as guardrails for my ego. Life is neither great nor awful. The old expression suffices: “It is what it is.”
There was an intrinsic fear in my upbringing of someone getting “too big for their ‘britches.'” Dreams are great, I was taught, but dreams don’t pay the bills. Practicality and pragmatism were spiritual disciplines to keep one on the straight and narrow. The one who thought too highly of themselves was a danger to the community. Scarce resources demand a humble posture whereby one doesn’t perceive themselves as needing more resources than others.
Like the rolling mountains of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains that enclosed the Shenandoah Valley, humility (“staying humble”) enclosed my worldview. Many an Appalachian escapes the hardship of Appalachia through money or education. Still others escape through alcohol or drug abuse. All find their way to escape the suffocation of “staying humble.” Jones describes this “leveling” intimately:
We mountaineers are levellers, and we believe we are as good as anybody else, but no better. We believe that we should not put on airs, not boast, nor try to get above our raising. We usually do not extoll our own virtues, and if we do we are ridiculed by others in subtle ways. Persons who are really accomplished, such as in playing music or singing, are often reluctant to perform until it is determined that you really want to hear them, and then they will preface the performance with disparaging words about their voices or their instruments…Of course, when these formalities are dispensed with, the…musician will probably cut loose with a great deal of vigor and skill. (Jones 1994, Kindle Locations 208-212)
Don’t get me wrong. I was encouraged to live my life. My family believed in me but it was a reasoned faith. My community (family and church) believed in me but there existed a fear that in my pursuit of “me,” I might lose myself in the journey. How do you lose yourself in your pursuit of yourself? Enter the need for humility.
Humility is a strange little world. Inherent in the definition is a tension. Humility is defined as “a modest or low view of one’s own importance.” The adjective you use for “view” in the above definition determines the truth of the humility. Appalachian culture would have you believe that modest and low are synonymous. Living almost half of my life out the Valley has made me realize they are not synonymous.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” May I suggest that false humility is the daily flagellation that many inflict on themselves in their quest to “stay humble” and not “lose themselves.” False humility submits to others on the outside all while moving against others internally. False humility makes people feel “less” about themselves which evolves into bitterness and cynicism at others. The heart of submission is lost to legalism.
True humility is having a “modest view of one’s own importance.” True humility submits out of a respect for the other. True humility moves towards others in health and wholeness internally and externally. Unlike the song and dance of false humility, which posits that one has nothing to offer so set the bar of performance low, true humility has a winsome attitude and perspective grounded in an identity beyond performance. True humility sees a world of plenty in a society of scarcity which genuinely makes such humility counter-cultural. True humility, as Jones captures so well, has a realistic and optimisic view of one’s self:
My feeling is that we mountain people have a pretty realistic view of ourselves, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We temper everything with humor that reflects the human condition as we see it. Since we never think that we can be perfect, we don’t become cynical when we fail. When we do not fail, we are pleasantly surprised. These beliefs make us somewhat at peace with ourselves. We don’t pretend to be what we are not. (Jones 1994a, Kindle Locations 217-219)
True humility follows in the way of Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
76 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8, NIV)
My Appalachian mind will sometimes utter, “You’re not that special.” I have found myself in rooms in which I cajole myself, “You’re just a boy from Virginia.” The reality is that both statements are true. False humility captures my performance quite well. I am the limited resources apart from Christ. Alone, I am not that special. I’m a boy from Virginia. I don’t have enough to offer.
With Christ, I can move towards others with the love of the father in the story of the prodigcal son. I can live with the true humility of the Christ hymn and move towards others internally and externally. My world is not scarce and there is enough to go around. Only when I break the cycle of survival or death can I fully enter into the world of others.
The world doesn’t need false humility. It needs the true humility of Jesus Christ embodied in those who “go and do likewise.”
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