Humility gets a bad rap, all too often conflated with unctuousness, a false self-deprecation that is actually a way of demanding attention. Václav Havel has a much more profound definition of humility in The Art of the Impossible:
Our respect for other people … can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are a part of it … and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of being.
He goes on:
Pride is precisely what will lead the world to hell. I am suggesting an alternative: humbly accepting our responsibility for the world.
Responsible, not infallible
Accepting such responsibility is not the stuff of putting yourself down. True humility requires a measure of inner confidence that has no time for comparing yourself to others nor for thinking yourself perfect. It is the confidence to not know everything, not be prefect, not protect ourselves with hubris.
The superb poet, novelist and environmental activist, Wendell Berry, says it perfectly in The Way of Ignorance:
There are kinds and degrees of ignorance that are remediable, of course, and we have no excuse for not learning all we can. …
But … Do what we will, we are never going to be free of mortality, partiality, fallibility, and error. …
Because ignorance is thus a part of our creaturely definition, we need an appropriate way: a way of ignorance, which is the way of neighbourly love, kindness, caution, care, appropriate scale, thrift, good work, right livelihood …
The way of ignorance, therefore, is to be careful, to know the limits and the efficacy of our knowledge. It is to be humble and to work on an appropriate scale.
We can push our limits as humans and as writers, but we also need always to be tentative, to avoid pomposity and conceit. We do this when we have an inner confidence that allows us to look with kindness on others, so humility is intimately tied up with compassion.
Humility is vital for writers. James Baldwin enjoins in The Price of the Ticket:
The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.
It takes great humility to take on this responsibility. It is an awe-inspiring responsibility. To take seriously that everything we write matters, not because it’s loud or the most important thing, but simply becasue we’re putting a mark on the clay of the universe. It has consequence no matter whether it is remembered a year or a century from now, but because right now, in this moment, it has the chance to make the world more humane.
The courage to illuminate the world
We live in an era that is full of the ‘throw-away’ but this is a lie. Nothing is throw-away. Everything we do leaves a footprint on the planet. Everything we consume has an output as waste, much of it problematic. The need to be responsible, caring, kind and cautious, in life as well as art, is urgent. Humility is potentially as life-saving and planet-saving as it is story-saving.
- When we see ourselves as intimately connected to everything.
- When we have the humility to be responsible for the world.
- When we see that how we are and what we write matters.
- When we don’t assume we know it all and so write with love, kindness, caution and care.
- When we illuminate the darkness on even the smallest scale.
We will receive feedback, not all of it invited or welcome. And we will need courage.
In a world that screams at us to conform, the courage necessary to express our art with humanity and passion is enormous. And there are other kinds of courage we need in order to have such humanity. Maya Angelou talks about the need for and the power of courage in the face of racism, slavery and Holocaust:
We need the courage to create ourselves daily, to be bodacious enough to create ourselves daily — as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as thinking, caring, laughing, loving human beings. I think that the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.
True courage, as envisioned in different ways by poets like Cummings, who wrote about the courage of voice and the long struggle to hone our art, or by Angelou, isn’t about individualism and egotisitical bravado, but about the largeness of thought and action that propels us to move beyond what is culturally expected and acceptable when the need is urgent.
Rachel Carson did this in her extraordinary book, Silent Spring, in 1962, catalysing the environmental movement. Jonathan Lear puts it like this in Radical Hope: Ethics in the face of cultural devastation:
We rightly think that the virtue of courage requires a certain psychological flexibility. A courageous person must know how to act well in all sorts of circumstances. We recognize that there can be times in life when the stock images of courage will be inappropriate, and the truly courageous person will recognize this extraordinary situation and act in an unusual yet courageous way.
Writers, like fools, speak truth to power. This takes a great deal of courage and it arises when we care, passionately. As philosopher and poet David Whyte says in Consolations: the solace, nourishment and meaning of everyday words:
Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences. To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world: to live up to and into the necessities of relationships that often already exist, with things we find we already care deeply about: with a person, a future, a possibility in society, or with an unknown that begs us on and always has begged us on.
Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive.
Courage, in short, requires enormous integrity. It is the integrity not to sell out on what you truly believe, on what you know to be vital, on what and who you love. Accepting the National Book Award, in 2014, Ursula K Le Guin noted:
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality.
Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.
This takes enormous courage coupled with the humility to go on writing, not comparing ourselves to others, but making small marks that together add up to a different story.
Small acts of connection
Writers need the courage to walk humbly with their words, to:
- exhibit largeness of thought, not ego
- move beyond what is culturally expected
- live the things we feel deeply, whatever the consequences
- have the vision to see alternatives
- participate deeply and responsibly in the world
Together, humility and courage are the small acts of connection and caring that anchor us, that make a home from what might be an otherwise cold world. Something I was reaching for in the poem, ‘Return to Tŷ Meirion’ in the collection Slate Voices:
I want a house — secluded,
a place to keep the chaos
out, a granite womb:
slung against slate,
hills; the sound of birds
hurtling to stake their claims,
while wind intones its lullaby.
We become so used
to fractured days,
to weeks spent
keeping one step
ahead of the rains;
to months when all we can do
is mend the fence,
then mend the fence,
then mend the fence;
to endless years when
it is enough
to name the things
that anchor us –
of a younger face,
this picture book
that I read to them
a thousand times,
this yellow shell,
this scrap of slate.
I want this place –
a foot on the crumbling earth.
Call to become your story
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