of cheesecake and choices

In my recent post entitled “wannabe,”  I included this short paragraph:

Ah, good old humility.  It didn’t go the way of the dinosaur.  It’s still as effective as it ever was, if we give it a dusting.

It seems to me that the idea of humility is most often greeted with groans of resistance.  Or shame.  In my opinion, it’s gotten a bum rapI suspect this has something to do with idiomatic speech:

“Despite her humble beginnings, she overcame the odds and soared to stardom.”

“He had to eat humble pie when his accusations against his wife were proven to be untrue.”

“I felt humiliated by your behavior at the party.”

It seems the word “humility” in all its forms has somehow fallen into purely negative connotation. And so humility winds up feeling like a punishment – something forced upon us by life or by the jeering crowd who wish us the worst.

In fact, humility like most anything else, is a choice.  What’s more, I believe it is a choice made from a position of strength, not weakness.

Let’s suppose it’s Thursday.  I buy myself a delicious piece of gourmet cheesecake.  My intent is not to eat it at the bakery or cafe, but rather to save it for tomorrow night, to celebrate having kept to my writing goals for the week.  If I can finish one more chapter by then, I will take that cheesecake out of my fridge and enjoy my reward.  Motivation.

It’s tough, but I stay up into the early hours of Friday morning writing, staying focused.  When I start to feel like I just can’t finish, I go to the fridge and look at the cheesecake awaiting me.  I pick it up.  I smell it.  Mmmm.  Then I put it back and start typing.

Somehow, between everything else in my day Friday, I manage to finish that chapter.  And it’s a good one.  Cheesecake, here I come!

The door bell rings.  It’s one of the kids I mentor.  The cheesecake will have to wait.  I let him in and invite him to choose a can of soda from the several varieties I keep stocked in the fridge at all times (this has become a tradition among the kids entering my home, one which makes them feel instantly special and at ease).  He calls out from the kitchen, “Woah!  This cheesecake looks amazing!  Is it leftovers?”

I have a choice to make.

But first, let me ask you, do I have a right to say no to this kid?  Do I have a right to eat the cheesecake myself later?  I mean, I bought it with my own money.  What’s more, I did the hard work of keeping to my writing goals so that I could fully enjoy the prize of eating it.  But, even had I not met my goals, do I not have the right to withhold the cheesecake and keep it for myself?

Let’s go a step further with it.  Would it be considered unreasonable for me to keep it for myself?  Couldn’t I simply say, “Hey, no, it’s not leftovers.  I bought it to motivate myself to keep writing this week.  And I did!  So, I’m gonna have it a little later to celebrate.”  Perfectly understandable, is it not?

The truth is, I do in fact have every right to the cheesecake.  And it would be perfectly reasonable for me to exercise that right.

I’d like to suggest that humility be defined this way:

“fully realizing my right to something, and then willfully giving up that right in order to honor another person.”

Give that a minute to sink in.

If this is how we define “humility,” is it coming from a position of weakness or strength?

Now, true humility knows it’s rights.  But it does not proclaim them.  Imagine that I say to the teen, “Well, you know, I bought that cheesecake for myself as a reward, and I really wanted to enjoy it later.  But, yes, you can have it.”  While I may still be giving away the cheesecake, I’ve muddied things by proclaiming my right to it.  In some ways, I’ve not really given up my rights to it.  I’ve sort of transferred them in a way that may make my friend feel as if he “owes” me if he eats it.  Even if my payoff is that I want the teen to think I’m a better person because of what I’m doing, I’ve traded my rights to the cheesecake for the right to his thanks or respect.  I haven’t honored him so much as I’ve honored myself for being such a good person.

I may feel that I must give up my right to the cheesecake in order to be liked.  Or that, because someone else asked, I no longer deserve (i.e., have a right) to keep the cheesecake for myself.  Here, I am not giving something willfully.  I am acting in fear that I will lose love or affection.  Or I believe that my right has somehow been taken from me by someone more worthy.   I would proffer that neither of these is real humility.  I am not so much honoring someone else as dishonoring myself.

With true humility, I know my rights.  And I know that I can claim them.  Then, fully realizing this, I choose to forgo my rights, because I see the value in someone else, and want to honor them by giving them what was rightfully mine to claim.  So, I say to my young friend, “You know what?  I would love for you to eat that cheesecake.  Have at it!”

And then I sit back and truly enjoy his enjoyment of “my right” to the cheesecake.

Just for the record, I don’t need to wait for this guy to notice the cheesecake.  Maybe, during the course of chatting with him, I realize that he is feeling down.  Tarnished.  Un-special.  Imagine the impact if I remember my cheesecake and set aside my right to it,  seeing it as a tool to help give this kid a sense of his value in the world.  He is worth having my special cheesecake!  I am no less worthwhile, but I’m not struggling with that at the moment.  He is.  So I make that choice.

Consider giving humility its good name back.  Imagine it as polished steel rather than a wet sponge.  Color it cobalt blue in your mind, instead of pale yellow.  And then put it into practice – not as a punishment, but as a privilege.

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