Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: pride

It Is Not a Good Thing To Be a ‘Do-It-All.’

We often want to do everything ourselves, but that is a mark of false pride. Even what we owe to others belongs to ourselves, and that is part of our own lives. And when we calculate just how much we owe to others, it is not only un-Christian, but useless. What we are in ourselves, and what we owe to others makes us a complete whole.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The idea of independence is good but is often confused.

We value learning skills and we can often advance our independence by learning something that we didn’t know before. But this is an inevitably finite goal. I cannot learn everything – just because I am finite and human. And if I did know everything what would that mean?

It is not a good thing to be a ‘know-it-all.’

It is essential to our humanity that we need other people. To learn from them. To get their assistance. Of course this is essential to ourselves – to our well-being. Without love and assistance from others our lives would be empty. But it is also important because our needs create opportunities for others to contribute – needs give meaning to all our lives.

It is not a good thing to be a ‘do-it-all.’

What we value is having control over our lives – freedom. Even this is not an unconstrained freedom. Freedom is an expression of self within the context of our community – it is a form of creativity which requires a medium for expression – things which we can control, but also things which are outside our control, but which provide the fabric of self-expression.

As Bonhoeffer observes the goal of independence, understood in a shallow way – me doing everything for myself – is not only false it is a sin. As Bonhoeffer also sees the sin is a failure to acknowledge that what we owe others is part of ourselves – and to deny the reality of this debt is a kind of ingratitude.

Understood in a deep way – me being myself, expressing who I am, with support from others is true and is how we become a “complete whole.” It is also a way of valuing each other, it is at the heart of mutual respect and community life.

Why is Pride the Greatest Sin?

Solzhenitsyn says “Pride grows in the human heart like lard on a pig.”

Dante places Pride at the foot of Mount Purgatory and imagines how it might take hundreds of years for us to pay its price. First we must wander along this first cornice – bowed down by the weight of a giant boulder carried on on our back.

But why is Pride the first and most dangerous sin? In what sense is it particularly dangerous? After all we can use the word Pride in a very positive way. I remember as a very small child being told off by my parents ‘Don’t be so proud, Simon!’ And I remember thinking to myself ‘Why shouldn’t I be proud? Isn’t pride a good thing?’ We imagine a proud knight in shining armour. We imagine a happy child beaming with pride at their achievement.

What is the key to unlocking the problem of Pride?

Perhaps it is to do with how we love ourselves. A proper love of ourself is necessary. It is not that we should love others instead of ourselves, it as we should love them as ourselves. Implicit in this is the assumption that love is real love – a real care and concern for the best interests of the person.

In this sense, good self-love – proper Pride in oneself – also assumes humility and a desire for change, improvement and making the best of ourselves. To not take care of our own needs, to not develop ourselves, is a moral failing. This is not about ‘just loving ourselves for the way we are’ rather it is about challenging ourselves to be the best that we can be – in the knowledge of our own needs and weaknesses.

But if this kind of self-love is not the problem then what is?

Part of this problem may be that in loving ourselves we struggle to avoid (a) thinking ourselves better than other people and (b) better than God. We seem unable to simply get on with doing the best we can. Instead we put ourselves at the centre of things. We lose sight of the value and gifts of other people and we lose sight of our place in God’s kingdom. Perhaps all our other failings and sins are rooted in this first sin – we put ourselves at the centre of things.

I love this piece of Jewish wisdom which captures the paradox of Pride most beautifully:

Just before he died, the Baal Shem told his disciples that the one among them who would teach them how to overcome pride would be his successor. The problem was put to each of them; the Maggid happened to be called first. His answer: Since pride is one of God’s attributes, man cannot uproot it entirely, all at once; it must be fought every day and at every moment. This reply was so favourably received, no one else was questioned.

From Souls on Fire by Elie Wiesel

Or to quote Anna Akhmatova:

Just save me from pride
The rest I can manage.

Making the Story True

“Pride” she [Isak Dinesen] once wrote in her notebook, “is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us. A proud man is conscious of the idea, and aspires to realise it.”

…she did write some tales about what must have been for her the obvious lesson of her youthful follies, namely, about the “sin” of making a story come true, of interfering with life according to a preconceived pattern, instead of waiting patiently for the story to emerge, of repeating in imagination as distinguished from creating a fiction and then trying to live up to it.

Hannah Arendt on Isak Dinesen

Pride is the first sin and yet it seems such a natural and unavoidable part of being human and of having some notion of our own purpose, destiny or value. In the Greek tradition pride is something proper – often it almost seems to be the point of everything – think of Ajax on the beach. But in the Jewish and Christian tradition pride is always problematic.

Elie Wiesel tells this Hasidic tale:

Just before he died, the Baal Shem told his disciples that the one among them who would teach them how to overcome pride would be his successor. The problem was put to each of them; the Maggid happened to be called first. His answer: Since pride is one of God’s attributes, man cannot uproot it entirely, all at once; it must be fought every day and at every moment. This reply was so favourably received, no one else was questioned.

I love this thought. It seems to truly capture what is necessary in pride, and yet, it properly puts pride in its place.

Part of what it takes to ‘fight pride every day and at every moment’ is also to be found in the idea of ‘letting the story emerge…’. The vanity of pride is not found so much in the fact that we value ourselves but in that we pretend to know what to value in ourselves – how to define the pattern of our own life. This is real vanity. Stories are not projects – they evolve and they are changed by the world and its contingencies.

We must live our lives with imagination. We must tell and listen to the stories. We are looking for meaning. But we must not force the story to come true or feel defeated when the story takes an unexpected turn. This is why proper pride is an act of faith, not knowledge; we must have faith in our value – but not pretend to know what that value actually is.

The Survival of Justice

The lucky man’s great good fortune
Ruins his children.
This was old wisdom.
Is it true?
Surely the father who breaks heaven’s law
Ruins his children.
The father who denies heaven’s right
Blinds his children.
The father who forgets to be humble
Crushes his children.
Evil begets evil.
But the children of the man who fears heaven,
They tread with care. They care for the good.
They are rewarded.

Rich pride mounts rich pride
And begets insolence.
Pampered insolence begets
Anarchy.
And anarchy, where every man
Is the tyrant
Of his own conceit,
Begets all-out-war –
Striking at heaven and earth.

Justice lives in poverty.
She survives. She measures
What is necessary.
She honours what ought to be honoured.
She seeks out clean hearts, clean hands.
She knows what wealth and power
Grind to dust between them. She knows
Goodness and the laws of heaven.

From Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, translated by Ted Hughes.

The chorus sing of justice just before Agamemnon arrives, to be slaughtered. They see how the powerful, always believing themselves to be justified, in fact deny justice. And they see how all of this will unravel. Evil begets evil. Justice survives, even as it is ignored – it cannot be eliminated.

Mr Pye and Do-Goodery

Mervyn Peake’s novel Mr Pye is a wonderful fable on the perils of do-goodery. Bringing boundless wisdom and benevolence to the island of Sark he ends up, much to his own disgust, turning into a winged angel.

What is at the root of his strange fall is his own pride, his determination to not just be good – but to look good.

Several symptoms of his prideful benevolence shine though the pages of the novel:

Unlike Christ, Mr Pye never asks the person he is about to help whether he really wants his assistance. 

Power is never questioned. Confident in his own benevolence and greater wisdom he treats people as puppets – at times quite literally. 

God becomes the “Great Pal” – always smiling, always present. Only in his final reconciliation with God does he experience any fear and trembling.

Do-goodery is not good. Goodness follows the path of justice: it is always respectful, humble and mindful that any good that is done never really came from the self anyway.

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