This past winter, my six-year-old began each day looking out the window. I would hear him roll out of bed, feet hit the floor, his footsteps moving toward one of the windows in his room. I knew what he was looking for: snow. A little while later he would come down the stairs, still sleepy-eyed, and ask to check the weather app on my phone. Would any of the icons in the 10-day forecast have changed from a sun to a snowflake overnight? For weeks, this was his first order of business. If there was a possibility of snow, he would be the first to report it.
I love his awe and wonder at the weather, at everything in the natural world. I love it because there is so much to delight in on this beautiful planet and he’s only just beginning to discover it. I love it because I get to experience it all fresh again from his eyes. And I love it because it gives me hope that, if he can hold onto his awe and wonder, he just might grow to be a humble man.
In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior defines humility as “an accurate assessment of oneself.” She writes that its sister word, humble, means “earth” or “ground.” “The person of humility,” Prior writes, “is literally and figuratively grounded.” This grounded, rooted definition serves as excellent imagery for the role of humility in growing our character. Prior writes that humility has “long been considered the foundation of all other virtues.” We might think of humility as the roots from which the tree of our character grows. The stronger we grow in humility – the stronger our roots – the greater our character will be, and the more virtuous fruit we will grow.
Of all the virtues our society needs to meet the present moment, humility is among the most necessary and urgent. It is a powerful antidote for the poisons infecting our culture: hyper-individualism, greed, irresponsible leisure, and our insatiable appetites for more of everything.
And while I have seen more calls for humility as a response to these things, I have had trouble finding conversations around how exactly one becomes humble. Maybe it’s because we believe that the truly humble never think about their own humility. That to focus on our own humility would only be an exercise in hubris. But humility, like all virtues, is a habit of excellence formed by practice over a long period of time. It takes intentional cultivation. And I believe there are certain habits that, if practiced, will stimulate the growth of humble roots in our lives. One of those is a habit of awe and wonder.
By awe and wonder, I mean the regular practice of paying careful attention to the world around us. Not merely seeing but observing. Perceiving. Considering. Asking thoughtful questions about what we see, smell, hear, touch, taste. In other words, attending with love and curiosity to what our senses sense. (How often do we eat without tasting? How often do we look without seeing? Hear without listening?) Admiring, imagining, receiving the beauty of the world around us in a regular, intentional way: this is the habit of a wonder-filled person. And it leads to humility.
A regular habit of awe and wonder de-centers us. It opens a window in our imaginations, beckoning us to climb out of our own opinions and experiences and to consider things greater and beyond our own lives. It strengthens our curiosity, which in turn lowers the volume on our anxieties and grows our ability to empathize. Over time, we become less self-focused and can admit without embarrassment what we don’t know. In short, we grow more humble.
It seems notable to me, then, that God gives children a built-in sense of awe and wonder. Kids marvel at everything around them. They gape at a trail of ants. Every dandelion is worthy of a bouquet. They ask endless, unembarrassed questions about how the world works. They see small pleasures like flowers in the spring, a snack with friends, and the warm sun on their shoulders for what they are: enduring, daily gifts. The facts of a good life.
Somewhere along the way, we lose this delighted, grateful response to the world around us. We begin believing a different story about what makes a life good. We get an education – which tells us we need a “better life.” We’ve got to move up, move on to “something better.” Something better might be found in a lifestyle we can purchase. Or it might be in a powerful position of influence. But when the good life is only found in what we can possess, exploitation and careless consumption will follow. When the good life is only found in how influential we can be, isolation, burnout and exhaustion will surely come knocking.
How then, do we resist our culture’s definition of the good life, one which promises power, wealth and fame but delivers anxiety and toil? How do we train our kids’ hearts and minds to love what the world scoffs at: fidelity to one another, natural limits, contentment in what we’ve been given? I think the key lies in cultivating our own wonder at the world and sharing that wonder with our children, all their lives. For my family, this has mostly come down to going outside and reading good books, both as much as possible.
On going outside: It’s not enough to simply go out. We must slow down enough to attend to the world around us. We must draw our kids’ attention to that which has captured ours. We practice curiosity, asking questions about how the world works. We taste and see the gifts of the day, and bless God for them.
“Listen to that bird! Why is he singing like that, do you think?”
“I can’t believe how many acorns are under this tree. Why do you think one oak tree makes so many acorns?”
“How amazing is it that God made all these different tasting fruits for us to enjoy? He could have made food bland but he made flavors incredibly complex and varied. Thank you, Lord, for fresh peaches.”
When I attend to the daily, ordinary miracles of cardinals, acorns and peaches, when I name them, marvel at them and call them blessed, when I practice gratitude for them, I feel more content. I find myself desiring more of those things, and less from the consumer world. I find I would much rather spend a Saturday morning in the woods or on a walk than at a shopping center or scrolling Instagram. I want the same for my kids; to grow up with the outdoors under their skin, with so many good and happy memories in the woods and on beaches and in our own backyard, that they can’t imagine a good life apart from the natural world, where “earth’s crammed with heaven, /and every common bush afire with God.”
On reading: We read poetry each morning at the breakfast table, because I love poetry, and I want to give my children words for the beauty they experience in the world. Throughout the day, we make time to read well-written stories, with characters who are full of virtue (and some decidedly not). We read because “good stories and poems do more than convey ‘content.’ By their form, they embody, sustain, elicit, and encourage the very habits and virtues” we hope our children one day exhibit.
“The good life begins and ends with humility.” I pray my children have eyes to see what the good life looks like in the kingdom of God. I pray for my own eyes to discern what is truly good and what is merely a mirage of goodness. I pray my son is always full of awe and wonder at fresh snow on a bright winter morning.
Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018), 223-224 ↑
I’m blending Prior’s definition of virtue as excellence coupled with habit, and also Will Durant’s famous quote in The Story of Philosophy: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (This is often mistakenly attributed to Aristotle). ↑
Wendell Berry writes often on this common trait of Western education. Jack Baker and Jeffery Bilbro look deeply at this in Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating the Virtues of Place (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2020). ↑
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, ed. Kerry McSweeney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 246. ↑