To Torment All Brothers
O man of pride, do come down from your heights!
’Tis lonely sitting in a chair like that;
The dizziness could cause you sleepless nights;
Please condescend, come down to us to chat.
Pride kills a man before he truly dies;
Pride poisons minds in stealthily a style;
Pride generates in men just ‘pseudo-highs’,
And makes a man unfit to walk life’s mile.
Remember, all are human beings first;
Well treat others in humane ways, you can;
The heart of pride would like a dam-old, burst
The man with pride cannot be content, man!
Pride steals the energy to guide others,
And only serves to torment all brothers. – Dr. John Celes, “Sonnet: The Man Of Pride,” 2oo1
Yesterday, I spent time on the one of the Seven Cardinal Sins that, by and large and as is humanly possible, I just don’t understand and doesn’t have a place in my makeup. Today, on the other hand, I thought it would be a good idea to drag out in to the light of day what may well be the least attractive of those sins (except perhaps for gluttony): Pride. That cartoon up there? Holy crap, I could have worn that around my neck for so many years it would have become etched in to my skin. Few things are more insufferable than a person who goes out of the way to make sure everyone else knows just how smart that person is, just how wonderful, how correct. “Take a look at me and all I know!” And, yes – that was me. Insufferable, annoying, so proud of all the stuff I and others crammed in to my head over the years. So proud of all sorts of things: the woman I married; the children I have raised; the books I own – and, oh, dear sweet Jesus, could I shut up about the books?; and, of course, how much better my taste in music was. That I managed to make it through my life without someone coming up and punching me in the face is a small miracle. There are years, maybe decades, of my life when that was the least I deserved.
I think it’s important to make a distinction between a good kind of pride and the kind I’m writing about here. The good kind of pride is the pride members of oppressed groups should take in their difference from the arbitrary norm imposed by a white, male, heternormative society. Gay pride? Absolutely. How long have sexual minorities been told to be ashamed of their desires? It is long past time for them to be proud that they love as they love. Black pride? For a population enslaved for over 300 years, suffering under de facto slavery for another century, told and shown their lack of humanity in a society that wouldn’t be wealthy, wouldn’t be cultural, wouldn’t have become the power it has been without the contributions of our African-American fellow citizens and slaves, they should be proud of all they’ve done, of who they are, of making America America for the rest of the world. Feminist pride? You betcha. Women should be proud of who they are, their abilities to be men’s equals while yet having the ability to carry a child within their bodies, give birth and provide nourishment to that child, never becoming less of a human being for all that.
What I’m talking about here is the kind of nonsense we saw and heard back during the 2012 Presidential campaign. When President Obama noted that folks took undo credit for their personal successes – the whole, “You didn’t build that” thing – some were enraged at the thought that a black man, the representative of the race who actually did build so much of our wealth while we white folk sat around insisting they were lazy, stupid, and inhuman. That he was correct was probably even more infuriating. Sure, some guy somewhere has an idea for business. Fine and dandy. Everything that has led to that moment, and everything afterward, however, rests upon the work of others. We have a state that has laws and rules that define what a business is and how business is to be conducted; we have local municipalities that indicate where businesses should operate, that provide police protection, that maintain usable roads and sidewalks so customers can get to and from the business. Contractors who build the business operate under laws that make sure their customer – the new business – aren’t provided with a substandard building, or dangerous wiring. I could go on but I hope the point is clear.
No one, anywhere, ever, has done or built something on their own without assistance from others. To claim otherwise is to demonstrate the kind of pride of which I’m writing: an inordinate, and certainly unwarranted, sense of one’s own abilities being superior to those of others.
For me, it was all that stuff crammed in my head. I actually believed that being able to read some books meant I was better than most people. I actually believed that having a couple pieces of paper that said I had graduated from different school meant I was better than most people. Reading this now, I want to laugh at the absurdity of the very notion.
What was worse, when I awoke from my prideful fever dream, there sat someone to tell me that, yes, indeed, having accomplished those things did indeed make me better than the run-of-the-mill person who hadn’t and, perhaps, couldn’t. When I noted some of those folks could do things I wouldn’t even imagine being able to accomplish, I was told those things were of little consequence. Being able to build a house, repair a car, being able to help build those cars in the first place; everything from welding through carpentry to plumbing and being able to read an electrical schematic and understand it at a glance was, apparently, something for “Others” to do, while I, and this person of course, sat around having big thoughts and reading big books. Like Tori Amos sings, “What’s so amazing about really deep thought?”
It took me years, decades, to get over the notion that I had some gift, some special talent, that raised me above much the rest of humanity. In those years, I know I alienated some people, ticked off a lot of others, and told myself it was OK, because, hell, I was me, after all. It is with no humility at all, but rather sorrow and a great deal of embarrassment that I acknowledge that I was a jerk. The friends from whom I could have learned so much. The people with whom I could have shared time and laughter and life experiences, gone because, as the saying goes, I thought my shit didn’t stink.
As I write this, I see a large set of book shelves, over-filled with all sorts of books. They are remnants of a time when I thought that meant something. When I thought it meant I was something. Now, I look and wish I could discard them all. Except, alas, I just can’t. As much as I’d like to rid myself of these emblems from my own hyper-inflated sense of myself, I can’t do it. Maybe I’ll get lucky someday, and a fire will consume just the contents of those shelves, leaving the rest of our possessions untouched. That would certainly be good for me, because I am just too weak to do it myself.
The worst part of pride is the way it denies God. It actually does worse than deny God; like the Deicide song above, it curses God and all God has done because the self is all that in which one need believe. If you honestly think any of your accomplishments are yours and yours alone, you are committing a greater blasphemy than any I can imagine. If you honestly do not understand how indebted you are to so many, past and present, just to be where you are, sitting where you sit, reading this, yet call yourself a Christian, my guess is you actually don’t understand what being a Christian is all about. It took me a very, very long time to understand how much I owed so many, going back centuries, right up until this very moment.
It is with no false humility, but very real embarrassment and awkwardness that I admit that pride robbed me of much that was far more precious than all the alleged learning I once thought so important, so definitive. Pride is the thief that steals from others their hard-won work, and claims it as one’s own. Pride is the liar who insists there is no need for others in one’s life. Pride is the glutton who devours the food and drink prepared by others and names it, “My dinner”. Pride is the smug face of the accomplished business person, artist, politician, or other who stands atop whatever meager accomplishments they have achieved and insist even the mighty should look on and despair.
Pride is the desire to hear others tell us just how wonderful we are. I would far rather face a gauntlet of those from my life who would be honest with me about my own smugness, my own insistence on how marvelous I was, than hear another kind word or compliment. The things I have come to learn – they aren’t mine. The house in which I sit – I had nothing to do with the house, or even that I am here and not elsewhere. Indeed, the whole of the life around me is the result of the work of others, not me. I am the least of those around me. For which I am very grateful.
I pray each day I remember that.