I was talking with some people tonight about humility. Most people probably wouldn’t consider me a humble person. It depends, however, on your definition of humility.

As with most things religion touches, I think it has screwed up our idea of humility. The typical conception of someone who is humble is someone who is self-deprecating, self-effacing, deferential – humiliated before GOD.

Merriam-Webster sez:

1: not proud or haughty : not arrogant or assertive
2: reflecting, expressing, or offered in a spirit of deference or submission
3 a: ranking low in a hierarchy or scale : insignificant, unpretentious b: not costly or luxurious

But I prefer to think of the word based on its etymology:

Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin humilis meaning low, humble, from humus earth; akin to Greek chthōn earth, chamai on the ground.

This is also possibly the root of the word “human“.

You know how much it must irk me to quote from the Christian mythology book but I’ll take poetry where I find it:

Genesis 2:7 And Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.

Genesis 3:19 In the sweat of your face you will eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For dust you are and to dust you will return.

Where am I going with all this?

I explained to some friends tonight that our bodies are made, as the book says, from dirt – which is just a poetic way of saying that the sperm and ovum which came together to create your body were formed out of the nutrients eaten by your parents which came from the ground. Plants literally eat the minerals out of the ground, the animals eat the planets, and the human animals eat both, thereby eating the “dirt” second-hand. This “dirt” – or as I prefer to call it, these “chemicals” – are what you are. Your entire body is made up of chemicals from the ground. We’re made up mostly of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen (the last three which were all formed in the explosions of stars, which is why Joni Mitchell sang “we’re all stardust”), with some salts and trace elements.

(photo by idan x)

Your brain is also made up of this “dirt”, this humus, and as regular readers know, it is my suggestion that every thought you’ve ever had in your life was 100% the result of a simple electro-chemical event in your brain. Dirt can think! Free will is an illusion. We aren’t in control of chemistry. We’re just along for the ride.

If you accept that this is all you are – that every action you’ve ever done and every thought you’ve ever had was the result of a simple electro-chemical event in the brain – then you realize you are just dirt. That everyone else is just dirt. Just chemical reactions. Hitler. Gandhi. Buddha. Not Jesus, because we know he was probably a fictional character. Napoleon. Jack The Ripper. George Bush. Saddam Hussein. All just dirt. Everything they ever did in their lives, everything you’ll ever do in your life, is governed by the laws of chemistry and physics which all sprung from the Big Bang, 14-point-something billion years ago.

Even that thought you’re having right now – “Reilly is so full of shit, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about” – that, too, is 100% based on the laws of chemistry. “You”, the dirt, had no “control” over it. It’s just chemistry. Don’t feel guilty about it – it’s just chemistry. You have no control over the laws of chemistry (unless, of course, you are a student of Professor Charles Xavier, in which case I grant you special compensation and you can leave class early).

So – that’s my definition of HUMILITY – knowing that you are just humus, just dirt. That everything you do in your life (or don’t do as the case may be) is 100% the result of chemical reactions which started with the Big Bang all that time ago. You can’t take credit for it. You weren’t even there. In fact, most of the atoms making up your body didn’t even exist. They came later.

If I’m right – and if you don’t think I am, come prepared in the comments section below with rational arguments – then you can neither justify feeling guilty or proud or angry or love. Can you love dirt? Can you be angry with dirt? Should dirt feel guilty for being dirt? Should it feel proud for being dirt?

Do you think perhaps this is what the writer/s of the Talmud or Genesis were trying to convey when they spoke of people being made out of animated clay or of the earth? Were they trying to explain that we are all just chemistry? And that TRUE humility comes from that knowledge?

The person who says “I’m not just a chemical reaction – I have FREE WILL! I am in control of my actions!”: is what they meant by a person with pride?

Instead, I quote Popeye: “I yam what I yam”. The dirt that made me is configured in a particular way, thanks to the laws of chemistry, and it is going to do what it has to do. “I” (whatever “I” am) is just along for the ride.