‘We Need Humility’: Overcoming our Pride and Prejudice

Last autumn I had two encounters that converged and caused me to reflect upon the discordance that at times emerges in academics. The first encounter was a spontaneous conversation I had with a well-known academic who left the Church many years ago and is a self-identified liberal who widely lectures and publishes on moral, social, and political issues. In our conversation, we found areas of common ground, especially in the frustration that plagues conversations in higher education—freedom of speech, safe places, the loss of civility, insularity. We related anecdotal stories from recent conferences that we have attended in which the lecturer’s or moderator’s introductory or concluding comments were laden with sarcastic and snarky remarks directed at government leaders, religious leaders, and the list continues. In the midst of this conversation, my acquaintance paused, and said, “We need humility.” Frankly, I was not expecting this statement, because the advocacy for humility in academia today seems rather quaint or antiquated. Nevertheless, this acknowledgment and necessity of humility has continued to reverberate through my mind.

My second encounter, which followed about a week after the conversation recounted above, occurred while viewing the film Arrival which captures the attempts of a professor of linguistics to communicate with the “heptapods,” aliens from another galaxy. The linguist and several scientists enter the alien’s space craft but are separated from the heptapods by a clear glass window, and the linguist tries to engage the heptapods in both oral and written communication. The heptapods are also attempting to converse, but their mode of communication is to eject ink into complex circular patterns on the window. Frustration mounts until the linguist has an epiphany, realizing that these circular patterns were a form of written communication. As I watched this part of the film, I thought that the initial failure at communication resembles far too many events not only in higher education but also in religious, social, and political spheres. But is the failure due to ignorance in how to communicate, or is it, rather, a deliberate decision not to communicate and frustrate the attempts at communication? Rarely are complex issues reduced to either/or questions, but these questions can stimulate an examination of conscience on how we interact with our colleagues.

While I do not know the answer to the above questions, I remembered the academic’s prescription, “We need humility.” The challenge, I believe, is two-fold. First, we must ask ourselves whether our convictions are right and firmly grounded and avoid the temptation to resort too easily and quickly to snarky and sarcastic comments to drive our point. Second, we need to ask ourselves whether we are consciously or unconsciously establishing barriers to communication? In St. Thomas’ treatise on temperance in his Summa Theologica, he compares the acquisition of virtue to priming the ground for the foundation of a building, that is, by removing the rocks, the roots, anything that would obstruct the foundation. The etymology of humility is derived from humus, earth or soil which can be muddy and mucky, and may require strenuous labor in removing the obstacles. Of all the virtues, St Thomas writes, “Humility holds the first place, inasmuch as it expels pride” (ST II-II, 161, v, ad. 2). The acquisition of humility, then, assists us in removing the obstacles that may impair our communication and purifies our intention to maintain and support our Catholic teachings.

The holy season of Lent beckons us to humility by marking our foreheads with ashes, reminiscent of earth, humus, and by instructing us to remember that we are dust and unto dust we shall return.” In this season, may we pause to remember our need for humility, to recognize and remove the obstacles, to prepare the foundation for building and growth, and to practice patience and civility with those with whom we disagree.

Sister Thomas More Stepnowski is vice president of academics at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn. She has earned degrees from University of Dallas, Belmont University, Providence College, and Maryvale Institute.

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