“You don't know you're beautiful / That's what makes you beautiful . . .” Everyone with a radio is familiar with these lyrics, taken from One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful," and many grasp their irony. The girl in the song has an appeal precisely because she doesn't know her appeal. Taking the lyrics literally means that if the girl listens to the song, believes its lyrics, and realizes she's beautiful, she would then cease to be lovely. Smirking aside, that concept probes at a deeper truth: this girl doesn’t consume herself with her own beauty. Perhaps we can think of people like this – maybe a man whose talent or charm failed to impress only one person: himself. These people are fascinating. They are appealing.
Why are they appealing? A gifted person, a truly beautiful woman, always attracts a certain amount of attention, but I have experienced the lyrics of this song before. I have met people whose charm lies as much in their – “ignorance” perhaps we can label it – as in their ability or appearance. Sometimes in an effort to achieve this ignorance, people downplay their abilities: “I got lucky” or “Don’t say that! You’re just as smart as I am!” But often these exclamations fail to satisfy me. Perhaps my friend really did get lucky, but I am trying to acknowledge something real I see in them. They won’t accept this, and it’s frustrating.
How can I be fascinated by people who think so little of themselves, but annoyed by people who can’t take a compliment? I think I am frustrated by the falseness I find in the second approach. It often fails to do justice to the real talent I see. We all know that this second approach is a false humility. And a friend of mine, frustrated with the coyness she saw, decided never to downplay or apologize for her talents. God gave her these gifts, she should be frank about them, right?
Part of me is tempted to agree with her. I return to the lyrics of “What Makes You Beautiful,” and am ultimately dissatisfied with the girl they depict. One Direction tells us that “You're insecure / Don't know what for” and “Everyone else in the room can see it / Everyone else but you.” Does this girl really have to be insecure and unaware to be beautiful? I can’t agree. And yet, I have also experienced, and am guilty of perpetuating, an attitude of accomplishment thinly veiled by a tribute to the awesomeness of God. This too is ultimately unsatisfying.
How can we approach our attributes in an authentic way, then? What does true humility look like? C.S. Lewis writes that, "True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less." In a simple sentence, Lewis captures the essence of humility. He debunks the assumption we so often make, revealed in pop songs like “What Makes You Beautiful,” about this virtue: humble people think they aren't good at anything. However, he also counters a smug celebration of our abilities, even if we correctly acknowledge them as God’s good gifts.
Lewis also discusses humility in The Screwtape Letters, a book written as a series of letters between one demon, Screwtape, and a junior demon, Wormwood, about methods to corrupt a human's soul. To counteract humility, Screwtape advises Wormwood to keep the human perpetually thinking about himself. If the human realizes he is being humble, let him think on this, appreciate it. Let him take pride in his own humility. Screwtape realizes that "in the end" God desires a human to be able to "rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as his neighbor's - or in a sunset, an elephant, or a waterfall." All good gifts from a generous Giver.
The truly humble people I know are compelling. They are beautiful. These people have talents. Or they don’t have talents. It doesn’t matter. They agree with my friend and acknowledge the talents and give God the credit. But there is the emphasis, on God and His credit. They are also like the girl in the One Direction song in that these talents don’t seem to affect them. But they are unlike her because these talents brush past them as they contemplate the Source of beauty and ability. They can celebrate their beauty and ability as a reflection of that Source, but as a reflection, not an origin. As St. Augustine writes,
“For wherever the soul of man may turn, unless it turns to you [God], it clasps sorrow to itself. Even though it clings to things of beauty, if their beauty is outside God and outside the soul, it only clings to sorrow.”
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