Mother Teresa, who is due to be canonised in September this year, went on to list 15 do-ityourself steps to achieve humility .
While most of these are unexceptionable `Speak as little as possible about yourself ‘; `Accept small irritations with good humour’; `Do not protect yourself behind your own dignity’; `Choose always the more difficult task’; `Accept contempt, being forgotten and disregarded’; `Accept censures even if unmerited’ some of her prescriptions are open to question.
`Avoid curiosity ,’ she said. Avoid curiosity , all curiosity? In a world without curiosity we wouldn’t have science: What makes the apple fall? How does gravity work?
Nor would we have literature, which is based on our ability to feel empathy which is the emotional and spiritual counterpart to physical gravity and which binds us together for an imaginary Hamlet, or Arjuna, or Don Quixote.
Then there is `Do not interfere in the affairs of others’. Which affairs? While we certainly oughtn’t to be nosy busybodies by meddling with other people’s routine affairs, what if the person is in acute distress or danger?
Instead of throwing him a lifeline should we let a drowning man drown, because that is his karma? Did Mother T herself `interfere’ with the affairs of others when she rescued dying destitutes from the streets of cities across the world?
`Give in to the will of others’ also poses problems. Who might those others be whose will we must give in to? By giving in to the will of Adolf Hitler and the atrocities com mitted by Nazism, the German people as a whole were made to bear the burden of a collective moral responsibility .
Should we give in to the will of a dictator? Isn’t dissent a resolute refusal to give in to the unscrutinised and unquestioned will of the government of the day the bedrock without which democracy cannot exist?
Rule number 14 is also tricky: `Give in, in discussions, even when you are right’. This once again raises the question of the centrality of dissent, as Amartya Sen has called it, to any democracy .
For democracy to exist, it is essential that we not give in in discussion when we feel we are right.
OK, so saints, even would-be-saints, inhabit, or seek to inhabit, a reality of the spirit which rises above and beyond such mundane preoccupations as how political systems operate. Fine. But what about seekers of truths which transcend worldly matters? Should Christ not have questioned the blinkered orthodoxies of the day in his debates with the elders of the community in order, eventually , to realise for himself and his followers the profound verity of his Sermon on the Mount: The kingdom of Heaven is within you?
Gautama Buddha experimented with extreme asceticism and mortification of the flesh before he found the Middle Path to Nirvana. If questioned, would he have abnegated the validity of his Middle Path in the name of humility?
Mother’s concept of humility is based on the spiritual discipline of the emptying out of the sense of self, of the ego. The profound dilemma arises when, in striving to relinquish itself, the ego unintentionally promotes the sense of a self that desires to be a self-above-self.
How to relinquish that desire, that self ? In other words, how to relinquish the desire for humility , the unmediated pursuit of which can lead to its, very opposite, to a pride in being humble?