"Humbled in the Presence of Yourself"
What David Brooks didn't say
Last evening, while I should have been reading an actual book, I was thumbing through Instagram stories. My brain was hardly registering what I was seeing. But my eyes came to a stop on a story about me. It contained really kind words, words I struggle to believe about myself and my writing still, words I really did need and want to hear. And there, at the bottom of it, was the little button telling me to share this story with my followers.
My thumb hovered over the button for a moment before lifting and moving away. Instead, I tucked those words in my heart and there they remain.
A few weeks ago Nate sent me a piece by David Brooks in The Atlantic called Humbled by my Own Greatness. We both cry-laughed over it while reading. Here’s a few snippets:
Whenever I feel particularly humble, I tweet about myself. I have never earned an honorary degree from the London School of Economics, but if I ever did, I’d certainly tweet the hell out of it. I’d want to let the world know how humbled the experience had made me. I’d tweet my humility, Instagram my humility, and maybe even TikTok it if I could find dance moves humble enough to make my point.
If you’ve spent any time on social media, and especially if you’re around the high-status world of the achievatrons, you are probably familiar with the basic rules of the form. The first rule is that you must never tweet about any event that could actually lead to humility. Never tweet: “I’m humbled that I went to a party, and nobody noticed me.” Never tweet: “I’m humbled that I got fired for incompetence.”
The whole point of humility display is to signal that you are humbled by your own magnificent accomplishments. We can all be humbled by an awesome mountain or the infinitude of the night sky, but to be humbled by being in the presence of yourself—that is a sign of truly great humility.
A good writer makes us sit up and pay attention, see ourselves in a mirror, and Brooks has done his work well here. It’s not new work by any stretch. We’ve been talking about the #humblebrag for as long as Twitter has existed. But every once in a while we probably need a refresher.
I’m thinking about this particularly this week because the affirmations have been plenteous and the compliments profuse (I’m holding my breath for the critiques that are inevitably coming). Sharing what people are saying is a way of killing two birds with one stone: putting the book in front of more eyes and thanking people for their affirmation.
But it’s not just thanking people, is it? It’s not holistic reviews I’m sharing. It’s publicly thanking people for their public affirmation.
And this is where it starts to get a bit #humblebraggy.
It’s a dog eat dog world out there, I don’t need to tell you. We’ve got ten billion things competing for our attention and eyeballs and ears and money constantly. As someone who is trying to write through the bilge and bring goodness to surface, I face this every day. I’m always thinking about how to get more goodness, truth, and beauty in front of the faces of those who follow me online. But what does one do when they are a creator of goodness, truth, and beauty, and it isn’t always enough to just have done a good work, we also have to sell that work?
The temptation to humble brag hits hard in these moments and it’s not even because I want to brag or because I’m “truly humbled.” It’s because I want to keep writing books and I want them to get better and better and better, and that means people need to buy them and like them and share about them and say nice things about them so more people will buy them and like them and…so on.
There are many layers to the humble brag and I’m sure better thinkers than I have plumbed the depths of them, but just some food for thought:
There’s an element of mutual flattery in the humblebrag. Someone affirms you, you flatter them by mentioning them and/or their compliment in your space thereby affirming them for affirming you. That just feels good, don’t deny it.
It’s an illusion of connection. This person doesn’t really know you and you don’t really know them. But it has the illusion of intimate knowledge when they affirm you and you share it thereby affirming them.
It drums up more affirmation. If one knows you’re wont to retweeting or sharing compliments about yourself, therefore getting the complimenter’s words in front of more people, it’s going to make more people want to compliment you.
I could go on, but here is one of the deeper layers:
There’s nothing wrong with hearing goodness about ourselves, nothing at all. So many of us only believe the wormy things about ourselves and we need people who will face the mirror with us and call us saint (Eugene Peterson). This is soul care and it’s deeply necessary for all humans. But the humble brag is when we start calling everyone into the same room and pointing at our reflection in the mirror like it’s the Mona Lisa. For those unfamiliar with us, they can start to believe that the reflection is the real thing. And it’s not.
But enough of that over a long period of time and not only do the people around us start to believe the reflection is the real thing, but we begin to as well. We start to believe our reflection is the thing everyone comes to see. We see they care more about how we look in a one-dimensional glass than who we are as flesh and blood. It’s a slow transition but it happens. And when it does, as it does, it erodes our souls.
My friend (and editor at Brazos!) Katelyn Beaty has a book coming out in two weeks called Celebrities for Jesus. She’s taken some good hard looks at the habits and hardships of celebrity culture in the church. Here’s something about celebrities in the church that we must pay attention to, though: they happen in an instant or they happen over a long period of unchecked time. Celebrity culture doesn’t care who it eats, it just wants dinner now. Either someone is the frog thrown into the boiling water or they are slowly simmered to death in a warm bath of their own puffed up virtue, but either way, they’re getting eaten up and spit out.
Where does this leave those (like me) who do our work publicly and whose bread and butter is eyeballs upon our work? How do we promote our work, and words about our work, without eroding our souls?
The pause is one of the best gifts to humans. In the pause, we can allow the affirmation of others to sink down into us, to change us at a truly “human pace” (to co-opt some of my favorite words from my friend Ashley Hales). Every day isn’t our birthday. We simply cannot process the likes, retweets, hearts, shares, saves, comments, compliments, etc. every single day without it eroding us. So pause. Let one person’s words sink in. Ask ourselves, “Is this true about me? If it is, what does that mean about who I am and how God sees me? What would it change for me if I truly believed I was ________________?” Just sit with it. See where it takes us.
Make a practice of thanking in private what is affirmed in public. This will create a necessary restraint for ourselves, a good one (and yet another plug for Ashley Hales and her last book, A Spacious Life).
Spend more time listening to the flesh and blood person in the mirror with us, the one reminding us we are saint, than we do to the folks out there calling us saint. Here is the finicky and fickle nature of applause—it can turn to thunderous critique just as quickly. And when that happens (and it will), we need people beside us who will tell us the truth. Sometimes the truth is the crowd doesn’t have all the information and we’re not as bad as they’re saying, but sometimes the crowd is right and we’ve got some work to do, but it’s work that needs to happen with those who actually know us and actually love us.
Commit to not humble-bragging. Yep. That easy. There’s a difference between sharing a true thing someone says about our work and adding, “So humbled by…” or “I cannot believe so and so said…” or “I can’t believe my work is getting noticed by…” Because the truth is we’re not humbled and we can believe it. That’s why we did the work to begin with! Because we did believe in it and we believed we were the person for the job!
So just let that fact stand on its own. Let the work be what it is, do what it needs to do in the world. Trust the work to do the work in the world that it did in you as you made it.
Have you ordered my newest book? A Curious Faith: The Questions God Asks, We Ask, and Wish Someone Would Ask Us. Also available: Handle With Care: How Jesus Redeems the Power of Touch in Life and Ministry
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I laughed over that David Brooks article for a while when it came out and then cringed and sent it to a few people. It’s hard to navigate when you are depending on people seeing your work. But being aware it’s an issue allows you to take the first steps.
“Because the truth is we’re not humbled and we can believe it. That’s why we did the work to begin with! Because we did believe in it and we believed we were the person for the job!”
YES! Don’t undersell all the work and effort and passion and perseverance. Celebrate milestones for what they are, beautiful mixes of hard work and blessings. Thankful you put this so articulately. I had to really work on retraining myself from the habit of constantly demurring compliments to being able to say thanks and accepting it as progress.