Humility and Hubris

When Allison Janney strode the steps of the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday to accept her first Oscar, her first words were characteristically irreverent. After the statuesque actor claimed her statue, she wryly said, “I did it all by myself.” Countering the longstanding tradition of thanking long lists of people, Janney’s quip was followed by a moving stream of gratitude. Nevertheless, her opener prompted laughter and a raised an eyebrow during a night that usually raises both brows.


Her humorous marriage of hubris to humility highlighted both the sin and the virtue in a context that struggles with both: How do we accept honors we desire, may think we deserve, yet eschew the credit for receiving them?

Good question. St. Francis de Sales may have the answer, though he never saw a movie: Give credit where it is due, and be grateful. His affection for Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:29 is well documented. “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.” DeSales focused on the virtues of gentleness and humility with deliberation and precision and then developed his spirituality with both of them in mind.

Humility, for this gentle saint, was knowing how loved we are by God and how that love showers us with grace to grow our talents and share them. To be humble in light of acclaim is to acknowledge the giver of the gift, our loving God, and to express gratitude for the blessing itself and the laud received. An ideal Salesian response to a compliment or accolade: “God is good; thanks!”

Hubris, on the other hand, stands as humility’s opposite. Spiritan Fr. Anthony J. Gittins defines hubris in his new book, Courage and Conviction: Unpretentious Christianity, as “the sin of self-importance and a spirit of independence or absolute autonomy.” Mocking hubris, Janney knew this and went on to be as gracious as she was elegant. Yet, her unasked question remains. Do we all wrestle with false humility and subtle hubris?

Jesuit superior general Fr. Arturo Sosa said soon after his election as leader of the Society of Jesus that self-sufficiency is the idol of our time. Yes, we do not like to be dependent on others; we like to be able to say that we did it “all by myself.” But, this is never the case: We are utterly dependent on the grace of God, which frequently comes to us through the care and intervention of others. Without God’s grace, we fall flat, accomplish nothing, and are destined for misery.

Thankfully, grace abounds. It is, then, no wonder that we have so much gratitude to express.