The Dignity of Dust: Humility and the Value of Inequality

“I am a deeply superficial person.” – Andy WarholAsh_Cross

In an era of Instagram and Twitter, image and sound bites, our society is increasingly obsessed with the superficial. And although the experts will tell you that we are more aware than ever that we are being manipulated, mere awareness is not enough. If we recognize the excrement around us but continue to wallow, we are pigs, not men, and the stench becomes more intimately ours.

In fact, not only are we collectively obsessed with the superficial, but we consistently overreact to it in the most absurd and conflicting ways. Consider reactions in our nation to differences in race and ethnicity. In our earlier days, it was common to regard differences in skin color, origin, and culture as fundamental – to dehumanize people of other races, to look for scientific justification of this position, and even to argue, for example, the morality of slavery as a antidote to pagan savagery. Today the pendulum has swung the other way: so conflicted are we about our past that we advance both color-blindness and affirmative action, integration and multiculturalism.

Or consider gender inequality. For most of history, gender differences were also regarded as fundamental, and men and women were afforded very different opportunities. Some of this differential treatment may have been unjustified, but it is important to understand that even among women there has not been unanimity on even basic issues like suffrage or access to higher education and career opportunities. In more recent years, again, the pendulum has swung to the absurd: we flaunt the female form, but reject its function; we cry out simultaneously for gender equality and genderlessness; we promote sexual freedom and disorder, but decry lust and dysfunction.

We are conflicted, because we have been misled: sold an impossible ideal called equality that claims to value diversity, but focuses only on our superficial differences and similarities and ignores the deeper ways in which we are created human, and uniquely so, for a purpose.

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“Equality may perhaps be a right, but no power on earth can ever turn it into a fact.” – Honore de Balzac

I would wager that most people—especially young people—in the United States today would identify equality as a founding principle of our country, even if they question its successful implementation. Throughout my own education in history and civics, the emphasis was invariably tilted toward democracy and equality, and indeed, it’s only recently that I’ve begun to explore the deep philosophical differences among our nation’s early leaders on this topic. Many of the best men of American Revolution were emphatically anti-democratic: while these men may have believed in equality before the law and some level of equal opportunity to pursue happiness and prosperity, they recognized fundamental differences in the abilities, means, and motives of their fellows, and were genuinely fearful of the passions and fickleness of the populace.

This seems very much in keeping with our Catholic faith and its Jewish roots. The Old Testament is the history of a chosen people, selected from all the peoples of the world for a special purpose; favored, chastised, and redeemed again by a jealous God who Himself suffers no rivals. Kings and cities rise and fall; men and women of virtue and (sometimes) ability are called to serve as judges, prophets, and servants of Most High. The New Testament continues this story, and is rife with haves and have-nots, misguided zeal and humble self-sacrifice, humiliating weakness and supernatural perseverance.

In the gospel of Matthew, Christ himself underscores this inequality in the parable of the talents, using it to show the importance of striving to increase what God has given us for the good of the kingdom. He puts us on notice with a powerful statement of inequality: “For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away (Matthew 25:29).”

* * * * *

“And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it.” – Ecclesiastes 12:7

The book of Genesis tells us that God created man from the dust of the earth, but in His own image, breathing His own divine life into Adam’s nostrils. Not only was Adam created in the divine image, but Eve, as well. Man and woman were created differently and complementarily for a reason: to image a triune, loving, life-giving God – of that there can be little doubt, since the first blessing of God upon Adam and Eve is that of fertility.

From the Fall to the present, humanity has struggled with how best to live in God’s image. We recognize something great and glorious in ourselves, and at times mistakenly regard it as a credit to us, instead of the One who created us. This inclination to pride can be countered by humility, and indeed, God provides abundant opportunities for cultivating this virtue.

In short, humility is knowing our place in God’s creation. Humiliation, in the common understanding, has come to mean extreme embarrassment, degradation, or shame and is often regarded as an injustice. In truth, the word shares its root with humble and references not de-gradation but re-gradation—mortification, the death of pride, and a restoration of proper order that elevates us to our proper purpose.

In this sense, inequality is a blessing, in that it reminds us we are not “all that.” The genuine differences between genders in form and function are a humiliation that reminds us of our individual limitations and leads us to loving communion. Differences in rank, knowledge, ability, and experience are also humiliations that help us identify our strengths and weaknesses, our gifts, our vocation.

This is not to say that we are confined to our station in life. In fact, for men, the struggle to provide for our families and better ourselves is the most important humiliation, as it was God’s response to the Fall: “By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; for you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return (Genesis 3:19).”

It is essential, however, that we understand the goal of this upward struggle. Our objective is not material success, temporal acclaim, or some ungodly equality. It is communion with God in heaven for eternity. When we embrace our limitations and the “dignity of dust”—that fact that we are a bit of nothing, elevated by God’s free gift of life-giving love—we begin to understand our place and free ourselves to truly follow His Son as children and heirs to the kingdom.

Seven Practical Ways to Foster Humility in Our Lives and Our Families

  • Show respect to authority. Whether it’s the president, your boss, or the gung-ho young cop who just pulled you over, be deferential to those with authority over you. Even when it’s difficult, speak well of them or remain silent. Be courteous and constructive in criticism and strive to avoid griping and gossip.
  • Use titles and honorifics. Acknowledging the station or achievements of others fosters good will and mutual respect, as well as humility. Use titles, and encourage young people to refer to adults as (for example) Mr. Smith, Mrs. Jones, or Miss Brown, or even as sir or ma’am. Persist in this habit until the person insists you use their first name.
  • Commit to making your own way. God owes you nothing, and you deserve less than He has already given. Delay gratification: don’t artificially lower your station by owing money or favors to those who expect repayment—and don’t attempt to raise your station by making others owe you.
  • Celebrate victories, acknowledge defeats, and learn from both. Competition is invaluable for teaching us our strengths and limitations and tempering our character, but only if we are honest with ourselves. Celebrate achievements, but never exaggerate accomplishments or make excuses for losses.
  • Own your mistakes and weaknesses. When you screw up, speak up promptly and apologize. Be honest with yourself and others about faults and failings.
  • Seek the advice of your elders and betters. When you need help, ask—and be patient and attentive to the help you receive. You just might learn something!
  • Examine your conscience and confess your sins. Reconciliation is a blessed humiliation—a restoration of right order in our relationship to God.

2 comments

  1. Timshel says:

    I wanted to note a couple of things that really resonated with me when we discussed this essay as a group.

    Didymus, I think you mentioned, “I like to be humble, but I hate to be humbled.” I think most people can relate to that — and those love humiliation are on the path to sainthood.

    Smokey, you spoke of our tendency toward the sin of pride, and said, “He can only increase if we decrease.” I think it was you, as well, who suggested that the push for equality stems from envy — we see others who have what we (or others we ostensibly care about) lack, and their success makes us unhappy. Was that you?

    From my own standpoint, I think what doesn’t come through here as clearly as I’d like is that there is value in the struggle — that the inequalities and obstacles we face are opportunities to exercise our gifts and grow in grace and virtue.

    I hope we discuss these topics more in the coming months.

  2. […] against sexual morality to the point that all that’s left is contradiction and legalism. As I’ve written in the past, “[W]e flaunt the female form, but reject its function; we cry out simultaneously for gender […]

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