Two days ago it was Ash Wednesday, the day that begins Lent (the period of 40 days before Easter). When I was young, you were supposed to give something up for Lent (I usually gave up TV) or do something nice for others every day. It was meant to be a penitential preparation for Easter. On Ash Wednesday you would go to church and the priest would put ashes on your forehead, saying, “Remember, Man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”
I think this saying was meant to help us be humble, but I was always very proud of my humility. I was very careful not to let any of the ash fall off my forehead, so that all my friends and neighbors would see how humble and pious I was. (Just in case anyone missed it, I would get ashes on the Sunday after too, even though they were really meant for the people who hadn’t been able to get to church on Ash Wednesday.)
Humility is a strange thing. Often what passes for it is actually self-righteousness, which is a kind of pride. (I’m reminded of a Jewish tale about the rabbi who went into the synagogue one day and knelt before the Ark, beating her breast, saying, “O God, I am nothing, I am nothing.” The cantor came in a little later and also beat his breast, saying, “O God, I am nothing, I am nothing.” Then the janitor came in and began beating his breast saying, “O God, I am nothing, I am nothing.” At that point the cantor looked over to the rabbis and said, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”)
But although people can fake humility (and often do), I think it would be a shame if we threw the whole idea away. After all, “humility” comes from the Latin word “humus,” meaning ground, or earth. Humble, human, humane: humus. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, that’s what we are–and shall be.
Now, I’m not going to suggest that you put ashes on your forehead to remind you of your earthiness (after all, you could get pretty proud of yourself for it, as I always did). But I think it’s not a bad idea, every once in a while, to remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. This is not a grim thought. (It’s only grim if you think dirt or ash is bad. I like to think of it this way: We are literally made of stardust.)
And humility doesn’t contradict pride in oneself–rather, it complements it. As another Jewish saying puts it: “Every person should have two pockets. In one pocket carry the words ‘I am ashes and dust.’ In the other pocket carry the words ‘For me the universe was created.'”
I have the feeling that that may just be the right amount of dust and deity, for each of us.
peace and unrest,