Michele and I were at our regular meeting last night – you know, the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in. Things moved from a reading to a discussion of humility and what it meant to the members.
When I first got to the rooms I was confused about humility as opposed to humiliation and amazed at the number of different answers I heard whenever the subject came up. Now, some years later, I find that there’s still confusion.
Bill Wilson wrote, in the 7th Step chapter of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, that humiliation is necessary for us to reach a bottom and decide to get sober. (I’m paraphrasing, but I believe accurately.) I guess that’s true if you consider the various jackpots we addicts achieve as humiliation. Surely many—if not most—of them are. Most of mine were, anyway. But I’m not sure it’s the best way of describing a bottom.
The simple fact is that most of us developed pretty thick skins in our addictions (remembering, of course, that “skins” are only on the surface, as in “skin deep”). In fact, I was so convinced of my general lack of worth and accustomed to being picked on as a kid that I developed a thick skin by the time I reached puberty. Mine took the form of being a know-it-all, who automatically assumed that unwanted observations from others were simply bullshit and thus unworthy of attention or consideration.
That was a pretty effective way of covering up the hurt, but it certainly didn’t protect my battered ego much! Every little lash of the figurative whip made a mark on my soul, bypassing the skin altogether. Nonetheless, it totally shaped my attitude toward life in general. It also had the effect of causing me to avoid challenges. If I figured I could easily accomplish something without looking bad (and I was pretty good at judging that), I’d do it and usually excel. But as soon as things tightened up and became difficult, I would back away and head in a different direction, toward a conquest with more certainty. That protected me from incipient failure and cemented a preference for the “easier, softer way” that we all know from our early attempts at recovery.
So I trained myself to ignore humiliation and avoid anything that I perceived might lead to it. In my mind, even embarrassment equaled humiliation, so I worked even harder at proving myself right, in my own mind, and ignoring the signals that I needed to straighten up and fly right.
Life became so difficult toward the end of my active addictions that even getting into recovery amounted to the easier, softer way: I was forced into treatment by my boss, instead of recognizing the solution myself. All I had to do was go along with it.
My recognition of humiliation, and its lessons about humility, came quite some distance into my recovery when I developed a degree of empathy. I began to appreciate and sometimes feel how I’d hurt others, and began to really want to do something about it. In most cases, I was successful in making those previously incomplete amends. Decades later I’m still working on some of them, but I did find that the humility needed to do so didn’t kill me—or my soul. In fact, it has begun to feel okay over the years, at least as far as I’ve managed to get. I’ve come to appreciate a definition of humility that’s someplace else in Bill W.’s writing. I haven’t been able to find the actual quote, but it goes something like this:
Humility is an accurate assessment of our faults and our assets, along with a sincere desire to improve them.
Doesn’t sound quite so scary when you think of it that way, does it?