Saturday, September 12, 2009
Humility in Everyday Life: Yogurt Cups
Every time Sr. Carol Ann sees a plastic yogurt cup she starts to twitch. OK, that isn’t fair, it isn’t like her mother was scared by a carton of yogurt when she was pregnant with Carol Ann and that has caused a life long fear of yogurt, the problem is recycling. We recycle almost everything here, from bottles to cardboard to foil to little plastic yogurt cups. The problem is that there is someone who eats yogurt and then just throws the container in the trash, leaving it for Carol Ann to fish it out, rinse it and put it with the rest of the recycling.
It isn’t a big issue, it is just one person and one little plastic container, but in some ways it symbolizes what humility is all about. Humility is central to Benedictine life. In Benedict’s Rule he sets forth the idea that we grow into humility. We progress in humility slowly, step by step. We gradually move from fear to love, from being consumed with ourselves to being filled with God. This growth is the work of a life time and it is appropriate that the work of becoming humble consists not of great, grand gestures and ostentatious accomplishments but little actions and incremental progress.
Humility is a lot like recycling yogurt cups. It is a little thing. It seems hard to believe that it will really make any difference whether I throw this container away or take some extra time to clean it and put it in the recycling bin. It requires a different way of seeing the universe. It takes humility to realize that humility itself is the sum of many, many little actions that flow from a new way of looking at the world. Recycling is a small act of reverence for the universe, a tiny way to make a difference, to make sure one less piece of trash winds up in a landfill.
Humility is a way of giving thanks for all that we have been given by God. In humility we give up the some of the room that is taken by our self-centeredness and give ourselves the room to be thankful. The opposite of humility is arrogance, the arrogance that takes gifts for granted. We are arrogant when we see a sunset and are too preoccupied to not let it take our breath away. We are humble when give thanks that we have so much food that we have the privilege of worrying about containers rather than where our next meal will come from. It is arrogance that assumes nothing I do will make a difference. Humility allows us to give thanks for little actions, gestures and gifts. In humility we give thanks for those who put their heart into making a difference for our planet.
In Benedict’s ladder of humility, the last step describes humility as a state in which perfect love casts out fear. That is the key to humility and to recycling yogurt cups. When we do all the right things, when we carefully wash our yogurt cups and put them in recycling, but we do it out of duty, or guilt or because we are afraid Sr. Carol Ann will discover that we are the ones who have been throwing them away, we aren’t acting from humility. Our actions may be good, the right thing is done, but neither our selves nor our earth has been transformed in the process. When we come to a place of humility we are able to do the smallest things out of love. In this transformed place we come to see that the love of God, love of God’s gift of creation, love of our brothers and sisters, is manifested in all we do. In this place even the smallest actions, the smallest yogurt containers in the recycle bin, are expressions of reverence, thanks and care.