It has become somewhat of an art for me, that of studying Southern culture and deciphering what makes us different from others, as well as downright peculiar among ourselves.
One thing I have found to be mostly true — as true as any rule can be — is that in the South, you either are proud or humble. There is very little in-between. My people, those of the poverty-ridden Appalachians, fall into the humble category, an attitude that both was chosen as well as learned and devoutly practiced for many generations. For those who stay in the mountains, it is passed down like an heirloom of a cast-iron skillet or an ancient plow.
“He’s so humble,” my cousin, whose top-notch education in biology has made her a high-paid executive, said about someone the other day. She is from the mountains and, though really “book smart” as our people would say, she pronounced it “umble,” dropping the “h” as mountain folks do. I smiled, for it is soothing to my ears to hear such words spoken as Mama and Daddy used to say them.
But humbleness — they never knew the word “humility” — can bite your hand off and steal the food from a baby’s mouth.
To each other, many of my ancestors said often, “The good book says ‘pride goeth before destruction.’” So that’s that. Enough said. If the good book warns against it, they intent themselves on following it.
But what I have come to learn, though it has taken a few decades, is that humility, while noble, can be as destructive as pride. In its own way, it will kill you or set you back or just plain hold you back. You see, there were lots of my beloved people who believed that whatever life gave you is what you got. You took hold of what you got, held on firm and prayed that what you got didn’t get gone.
“Until I saw what my children could do, it never occurred to me that simple people could go out and have big lives,” Mama said once. “I just always was of the mind that you took what the good Lord gave you and worked hard to do your best with that.”
Now, I wouldn’t want to call Mama a liar or hint that the truth wasn’t in her, but she and Daddy both built a small footbridge between humility and pride. They didn’t stay in those mountains. They didn’t accept that life. Individually, they left, sought better lives and found them. When their lives ended, they owned property and had a modest sum of money in the bank. In short, they didn’t settle.
Don’t get me wrong, though. There still was a lot of humbleness in those two. You heard it in Daddy’s quivering voice when he dropped to his knees to pray and saw it in the calluses on their hands. I was taught that warm shelter, good food and enough money to pay taxes were blessings that went above and beyond what we deserved. No one over-reached or overstepped. We were to stay where God put us.
That kind of thinking seeps into the marrow of one’s bones and holds one captive. A few times over the years, I have pulled myself up and stopped just short something wonderful. I refused to step closer to downright spectacular because I would say, “This is far more than I deserve. I am so blessed.” Like my people, I rarely considered myself “worthy” of anything great.
But lately, I’ve taken to pondering on the limits that our self-imposed humility has wrought on us and how it has held us captive.
This is what come to me: Too much humility produces some form of pride, and the longer you hold onto it, the prouder you become.
That’s not a good thing, either.
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