The Humility Paradox

A recent story in The Wall Street Journal discussed appropriate occasions for bragging, which social psychologists are calling “self-enhancement.” First dates and job interviews appear to be acceptable contexts for promoting oneself.

The article goes deeper, however, to suggest that two personal characteristics compete in the struggle to determine when or whether to brag. Researchers report that people wrestle to be viewed as moral or competent in reference to bragging. Those who mildly self-enhanced were seen as competent, but not as moral. The converse was also true. The apparent competition between being moral or competent led to the development of the humility paradox for “braggarts” and “humblers,” as people yearn to be both moral and humble. But, is it possible to be both?

St. Francis de Sales would assert it is, with great enthusiasm. As Matthew 11:29, where Jesus says, “Learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart,” was DeSales’ favorite gospel verse, humility is acclaimed as a central virtue in his spirituality. In the chapter titled Of A Deeper Inward Humility from his Introduction to the Devout Life, the French bishop writes: “The lively consideration of graces received makes us humble, because a knowledge of them excites gratitude.”

Linking gratitude to both humility and the object of our bragging is genius. The Giver of the gifts gets the credit. God’s bestowing immeasurable gifts among us is indeed a sign of his love for us. Yes, we cooperate with grace when developing a gift, talent, or opportunity into something praiseworthy. Here, our tradition tells us that even the drive for such cooperation is a grace itself. More thanks to God.

Perhaps the humility paradox is a gratitude crisis dressed up for a date or a job interview. In our lives as disciples, all is grace. And, our response of gratitude to God is not just a first step to living a moral life; it is every step in living Jesus!