+ sunflower on sunset April 2010 10288800_sA scene from a book I read recently got me thinking about some words that start with “h-u-m,” humility, humiliation, humbleness. The book was “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. It is a novel about the changing racial situation in the 1960’s and the white families with black domestic help at that time. The book’s racial aspect raises issues about humiliation, of course, but the scene that I’ll recount was not racially driven. It was between two white people on a date.

One of the main characters, Skeeter, a woman in her early twenties, is not your typical Southern Belle. She’s secretly interested in becoming a writer, not a bride and a housewife. She also isn’t typically beautiful – she is tall and has frizzy hair, attributes she is self-conscious about and which her mother continually tries to get her to conceal or correct.

Skeeter hasn’t dated much, so a friend and her husband set her up on a blind date with a man named Stuart. The four of them go out for dinner, but Stuart isn’t really present to Skeeter. He doesn’t make eye contact or pay much attention to her. He orders drink after drink and talks to everyone but her. Throughout the scene, we feel Skeeter’s discomfort with herself and Stuart’s treatment of her. Then she says,

“The end of the meal finally comes and he and William split the check. Stuart stands up and helps me with my jacket. At least he has nice manners.”

Nice manners, that is, until he adds,

“Jesus, I’ve never met a woman with such long arms,” he says.

At this point, I thought Stuart’s rude behavior and remarks would finally get under Skeeter’s skin, and that her next line would be, “I was never so humiliated in all my life!” Instead, she replies to him,

“Well, I never met anybody with such a drinking problem.”

I loved this response because I felt Skeeter was showing a lot of gumption with that line! I was so glad she showed her power and didn’t go into humiliation or shame.

Humiliation is a very difficult emotion to experience. Humiliation means “the act of degradation.” To humiliate means “to lower the pride, dignity, self-respect of.” When we feel humiliation, we feel an intense lack of self-respect and self-worth.

I was reminded of how close the word humiliation is to the word humility. Humility is a quality that our culture encourages. When we do something well, achieve some success, attain a goal, we are gently reminded to have humility, to be humble, not to be too proud of ourselves, to “tone it down” a little. There is a bit of a mixed message here. We are encouraged to feel good about ourselves, but not too good. As I thought about these two words, I realized that there is a fine line between them. I actually experienced a certain humiliation in the push to be humble – the message being that it is shameful to feel good about myself or an accomplishment.

The domestics in “The Help,” were expected to have an attitude of humility, and they were often humiliated in their encounters with white people. The fine line between humility and humiliation was often crossed. Humility is defined as “the quality or condition of being humble.” But, the definition of humble is: “marked by meekness or modesty in behavior, attitude, or spirit; not arrogant or prideful. Showing deferential or submissive respect. Low in rank, quality, station, unpretentious or lowly.” Based especially on these latter definitions, I am not interested in being humble.

Humiliation is an act of power over someone, one person diminishing another. Perhaps, in a sense, we are also humiliating and diminishing ourselves by being too humble, by not allowing ourselves to know our own worthiness and empowerment.

Two other h-u-m words stood out as I scanned the dictionary: human and humane. We all know what it means to be human – we are, after all, Spirit in human form. We all know the mixed blessing of that experience. And since we all know it, we should be able to identify with each other and be: humane. Humane means benevolent. When we connect with ourselves and each other benevolently, we are in a loving and honoring place. How powerful that is! It removes the need to be falsely powerful over anyone else, because we know our own (and therefore everyone else’s) empowerment and worth.

My last definition (as you can tell, it was Dictionary Day at my house!) is for the word power. Power is the capacity to perform or act effectively. Kept “clean” of other connotations, this is a great definition of true power. True power isn’t created by humiliating people and taking away their power; it isn’t created spiritually by shaming yourself and feeling meek; it is simply the capacity to perform or act effectively.


This is the kind of power I feel we are meant to invoke in ourselves. Call it in – into your next task, your next thought, your next breath – and see what happens…

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