While the world around us is pushing and shoving for preference — accumulating the baubles of the time, getting caught in the rip tide of competition that comes with getting those things — simply keeping up becomes exhausting. Healthy men succumb to the late work hours that pay for all those signs of privilege. Healthy women take on one more layer of public responsibility till there's very little time left to really enjoy any of it. The whole of life becomes a stress test.
So why does anybody engage in that kind of self-flagellation? Because getting off a bucking horse feels just as dangerous as getting on one.
Which is where this week's call to humility, Benedict of Nursia's sixth century program of spiritual development, reads like a blue print for social disaster. At the same time, it may well be one of its greatest contributions to mental health in the modern world. It is an antidote to the crush of pressure, to the seedbed of envy, to continuing and underlying dissatisfaction with the self.
The sixth degree of humility is very straightforward. It reads: "The sixth step of humility is that we are content with the lowest and most menial treatment." Now there is what they call "a countercultural statement" if I have ever heard one. In this world, even small children are driven to succeed, to be chosen, to be seen as outstanding before they even know that there's anything for which they should contend. And if they do, they begin to expect the spotlight that goes with it.
On the other hand, adults live emotionally scarred all their lives because they never earned as much money as their cousins did. The woman for whom the promotion and brass plaque never come lives seared with the pain of only being a woman. Clearly, the proclamation of the sixth degree of humility is surely one of the shortest, loudest thunderclaps of public disdain for the spinning wheels of gerbil cages that contemporary society has ever known.