Honor and Humility

Part two, continuing with the Pagan Values Project and working with the values from the Charge of the Star Goddess, let us look at honor and humility.

Honor and humility emerge from a common source and leading us to the middle way of being: both active and receptive, challenged and yielding. Humility is seeing myself with accurate self-knowledge, neither larger nor smaller than I am, from which comes honorable action.

Both virtues can become hardened extremes when disconnecting from each other. Personal honor can become a relentless, driving quest for perfection that crushes others in the way. Communal honor can result in heartless and violent actions, like cutting away or killing family members who have “disgraced the family’s honor.” Those in the lower hierarchies might be crushed by compulsory honor to someone who is dangerous. Humility, too, can become debasement. Our skills and talents languish because we’re too afraid to act above ourselves. We might be surrounded by people threatened by excellence or people who will not settle for things as they are. We might not believe in our own capacity to do, or we might believe we do not deserve love or rest. All that energy that could contribute to growth and development instead becomes toxic, leading to depression, apathy, or passive-aggression.

Honor has a personal and communal meaning. In more collectively oriented cultures, the behavior of an individual reflects upon the honor of the group to which they belong. In current usage among modern Pagans, I understand honor as reflecting one’s personal state of integrity. We honor ourselves by following through on our commitments, being true to our word, and giving respect to our strengths and limitations. If I know that taking on another commitment amidst an already-crowded series of projects will cause me to burn out and fail all my commitments, then I honor myself by saying no. If  I value service, and my resistance to helping someone else comes from motivations that feel less than virtuous, then I honor myself by saying yes.

We lie to ourselves and each other, and following a path of honor includes learning to discern these lies and making choices toward truth. One way I lie to myself is by saying “I have to do these things.” I feel burdened by other peoples’ expectations and feel like I’m being jerked all over the place trying to fulfill them, because “I have to.” When we say “I have to,” often what we mean is that the consequences of not doing are far worse than doing. I did not have to go to work this week, but working supports so much else in my life that it is far better I go to work than not. Kindness to my parents is not compulsory, but I value their relationships.

When we “have to” do something, we unconsciously assign responsibility for our life to all these people for whom we must act. We dishonor our own ability to choose and accept consequences. To take responsibility and remember our own freedom, we can say, “I choose to.” This honors the self, and such honor unfolds into a greater sense of integrity. Perhaps taking the time to look at my choices and the consequences of not doing will help me see ways in which I’ve wasted my life energy. At times, when I say “I choose to do something” that I always thought I had to do, I will notice an almost physical discomfort with the statement. This inner response says I dishonor myself by choosing this path of action. Perhaps then I can choose to act differently, or not at all.

We do the same when we undermine our life power by saying, “I can’t,” “I can’t afford it,” “I don’t have time,” “I should,” “I shouldn’t.” All of these statements are ways of evading our own responsibility and capacity to choose. We suffer when we feel these obligations and responsibilities are running our lives for us, yet struggle to say “I won’t” or “That is not my priority, I choose to do something else with my time and money.” We notice those inner responses that tell us something is false, or we feel we are being rude. We are suddenly more accountable for our choices. This is a process and takes time to integrate.

Honor is also a way of relating to others that demonstrates my respect for worth. We honor each other by listening and challenging each other. We honor each other by encouraging growth and change without insisting upon that growth look the way we think it should. We honor each other by showing gratitude for what we have received. To give honor to another person comes from my sense of humility.

When I come from a place of humility, I see that I am owed nothing in life, and everything I have is either a gift or something I’ve earned. Either way, I am not this lone person, self-created, self-sustaining. I am a point in a web connecting many strands. To even be typing this on a computer, I benefit from centuries of scientific insight and progress, thinkers and teachers of the humanities who have encouraged reflection and self-expression, my teachers who encouraged me to learn to read and write, my parents who have nurtured and encouraged me, and so forth.

Humility is not minimizing what I have to offer and pretending I am worthless. Humility means stepping forward and saying I can help when I have a valuable skill. Humility also means stepping back and letting others with greater skill take charge. Humility is giving up my seat on the bus to someone who seems to need it more, and humility is also keeping my seat on the bus when I feel exhausted and am not sure I can stand to stand. Humility recognizes my humanness, those essential qualities I share with other humans. Though I may feel alien, superior in some skills and inferior in others, I am not separate from humanity, and every interaction has potential value if I open myself to it. Humility means that these words may touch the hearts and minds of others. If one person takes in this work and feels inspired to live according to the truth of their heart, this work has value and lives through their actions.

Humility recognizes my animal nature, the instinctive and moving body of flesh that has cravings and desires, that needs sunlight and rest, that is no greater or lesser in worth than the birds, trees, and microbes with which we share the world. Every species exists to actualize some evolutionary imperative, supported and antagonized by our environments. The air I breathe is an ongoing relationship between plants, animals, and microbes that cycle and feed each other. Humility recognizes materiality, that I am made from the same stuff as stars and galaxies, that my life only exists because of a frail membrane of atmosphere that shields me from the vacuum of space and harsh radiation of the sun, yet that same sun is the origin of my life’s energy. Humility is a recognition that I was born and I will die. Days, years, millennia from now, these words will be gone and my body dissolved back into particles, perhaps cycled through other forms of life and matter. What life I have now, in this moment, is miraculous.