“In reality there is perhaps not one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself…For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”
– Benjamin Franklin
A chance encounter with a Vatican priest was to be my first lesson.
He was in the seat next to me on a flight to Accra, Ghana’s steamy capital city. I was on my way there to work for a local newspaper, and he was coming home to visit his family. He was Ghanaian and had moved to The Vatican a few years earlier to work for the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, a branch of the Vatican that organised pilgrimages.
He had this air of benevolence about him which I found comforting as I was only just slightly anxious at the prospect of spending the next four months living in deepest, darkest Africa. He was very engaging and I was surprised at how approachable he was, even dressed in a long black cassock and clerical collar. We started chatting almost immediately and didn’t stop until we said goodbye outside the airport in Accra. We discussed absolutely everything from God to Ghanaian cuisine, and disagreed on many of these topics. However, one thing we agreed on and that stayed with me since, was the importance humility.
It came up in conversation when I asked him why he wasn’t flying first class as I spotted him earlier being whisked through the departure lounge, clearly not your average traveler. He told me that he has never flown first class even though he is automatically offered an upgrade whenever he checks in. He said it can be incredibly difficult to stay grounded when you work for the Vatican as you are elevated to this divine status. He also said how easy it is to lose touch with what is real and important in life and how quickly you can get caught up in all the pomp and material benefits that surround you, not only in the Vatican but in all spheres of life. I think I knew this already but admired how he had made a conscious decision to turn down something seemingly meaningless, like the offer of a reclining chair with plenty of leg room, to rather sit squashed with the masses in economy class in an attempt to stay humble. He told me it was much too comfortable in first class and sometimes we need to be uncomfortable. This was just one small thing he did which he hoped would maintain some kind of humility within himself – something he told me that was very important.
My next lesson didn’t teach me how to be humble, but rather humbled me so completely that I felt ashamed. I was walking through Accra, trying to find the bank and after a few wrong turns realised I was very lost. I approached a young man carrying a briefcase who seemed to be on his way to work and asked for directions. Instead of pointing down the road and then being on his way, he walked the entire way to the bank with me, ten minutes in the opposite direction to where he was going. When I was safely at the entrance to the bank he said goodbye and went back to where he was going.
It was only later that day when I recalled this act of kindness, something he seemed to do without a second thought, that I felt so humbled. Coming from a city like London, one of the worlds great cities, loaded with financial and material wealth, it can be difficult to get the time of day from a person in the street. Yet in Accra, a relatively destitute African city that can barely feed its people, I was offered help in such a generous way and without hesitation. This made me realise just how wrong we’ve got it in our Western civilisation. This was not the only occasion someone helped me like this and there were many other selfless acts of charity during my time there.
There was a small café near my office in Accra and if one of my colleagues ever spotted me walking past while they were having lunch there, they would shout out the window and invite me to join them. I was a millionaire compared to them and in the three months I worked there, not once did they let me pay for my lunch. Even after much protest on my part, they simply kept reminding me that I was a guest in their country and they would never accept my money. I cringe at the thought of one of them coming to London, expecting to be treated with the same hospitality, and instead being pushed out the way on the tube, or ignored when asking for directions.
London is clearly rich in terms of money and material things, but Ghana is so much richer in spirit, kindness and generosity. And which is more important?