Sweet as Candy:
Humility as a Spirituality of Benevolence
Growing up, every Friday, my Grandma Candy would call and ask the same opening question: “My mashugana, what was your mitzvah for the week?” Never aiming to question my adherence to one of the 613 commandments God gave to the Jewish people, my Grandma instead was gesturing toward my faithfulness to a secondary meaning of mitzvah within Jewish culture, “good deed.” With time, and endless stories, I came to see my Grandma’s question as both a provocation to act with an intention of benevolence—to be sweet as candy—as well as a suggestion that my sense of self-worth begins with humility, with a quieting of egoism in favor of empathetic praxis. To be spiritual was not wed to belief or ritual but rather found expression in my willingness to act on behalf of and for others.
Within the moving collection of “essays on ordinary acts,” Radical Humility highlights this sentiment by challenging readers to see how “radical,” “humility,” and the “ordinary” coalesce into the aspiration, as Ruth Nicole Brown writes in memory of her Aunt Dottie’s influence, to live according to the mantra of “you, before me,” which she describes as a “negation of self that depend[s] on a complete understanding of generosity” (39). Although the title of the collection evokes an apparent contradiction, the connection between “radical” and “ordinary” situates the various ways that acting with a sense of everyday humility—with a “complete understanding of generosity”—can be transformative; in being humble, we arrive at a praxis of willful abnegation of self-interest and self-involvement in favor, as Sarah Buss notes in her introduction, of “improving the lives of others,” of intentionally moving “into the background in order to enable others to move into the foreground” (12). Within this movement, we catch the spark that guides us to be persons of character in whom individual purpose and fulfillment become bound to the way we treat others. Our humanness—and humaneness—manifest most fully when we learn to integrate and act in accordance with principles of humble inclusivity, a commitment to mutual dependence and equity, and a desire to improve the human condition and our natural worlds as a direct manifestation of living virtuously.
The ordinary, as a result, is always already radical when we accept with grace and humility that we exist in “a complex web of mutual dependence” (Buss 13). The result, I propose, is a spirituality of benevolence, a position out of which self-action becomes other-focused, where love connects to the Greek philia, or the willingness to undertake self-surrender in favor of another’s best interest, free from any ulterior motives or hope of earned reciprocity. Yet, as the collection of essays in Radical Humility stress, while benevolence motivates us toward good intentions, the radical impetus emerges when we put intentions into actions, when we seek out moments for transformative change. This can, and often does, occur on a local scale in the various ways we interact and engage with others. It also, however, emerges within larger projects that seek to make well-meaning not simply a state of mind but the impetus for acts aimed at expanding inclusivity, realizing equity, and enhancing empowerment.
This move—from a state of benevolence to empathetic praxis—captures the real aim of my Grandma Candy’s repeated question. In beginning each call the same way, she was gesturing both to the ongoing obligations that emerge when we act from a position of benevolence, as well as the need to go further, to help bring change into being. Where well-intentions motivate ongoing efforts, humility grounds us in both our successes and failures, pushing us to accept a conditional reality, an awareness of mutuality in which our worldly conduct becomes the means to measure our ability to avert our gaze from “I” to “we.”
In her Radical Humility essay, Jennifer Cole Wright identifies this “state of awareness” (34) as the ability to escape “the gravitational pull of the self,” to understand, “through humility,” how “our experience of ourselves in relation to (and in relationship with) other living beings, and with the universe as a whole, is freed from the centripetal force naturally generated by our centered-ness” (30). In freeing us from the bind of egocentricity, humility helps us arrive at a position of belongingness—humility signifies an ongoing practice of kindness, a contemplative form of altruistic mindfulness designed to bring forth our boundedness with one another, our openness to pursue social justice, and our capacity to speak truth to power.
So, to borrow from my Grandma Candy, what was your mitzvah for the week?
A Public Holistic Response by Paulina Camacho Valencia
Ubuntu—a Bantu term meaning “I am because we are”—is a Nguni belief that parallels similar Mayan (In Lak’ech) and Lakota (Mitákuye Oyásʼiŋ) philosophies. Despite geographical distances, these three seemingly disparate cultures share similar beliefs in the importance of our mutual interdependence. Morgan Shipley’s response to Radical Humility points the reader to strategies for how to begin to reintegrate the principles of Ubuntu, In Lak’ech, and Mitákuye Oyásʼiŋ into our daily practice. Shipley extends a lovely gesture and reminder from Grandma Candy to reflect on our weekly mitzvah, or good deed. It is understood that, with time and persistence, these actions are no longer prompted by external forces and instead become folded into ourselves as a way of being that is self-aware and attuned to the world.
Spiritual benevolence is offered as a place from which we can begin to quiet egocentric individualism and build from a place of humble intention that centers an awareness of others in addition to ourselves. We are reminded that our becoming is informed by the multiplicity of people and other more-than-human entities we engage daily. There is no destination or point of completion, rather Shipley frames this as an iterative and emergent process of praxis. These concepts are not new—they have been articulated by different people around the world across many generations—yet their importance and relevance are not redundant. We need constant reminders for how to become oriented to these philosophies until they become second nature and ordinary acts.