Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: self

We are the Rock and Life is the Stream

We are the rock and life is the stream – we can but resist with grace. On our optimistic days we may think of ourselves as the authors of our own lives. On our pessimistic days we may see ourselves as puppets, subject to the will of others. In truth – we can only be ourselves, true to the best in ourself – we may influence the flow of things, but we will never control it.

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.

Our Gifts Are Just Loans

The Pharisees were people who relied on their own strength to be virtuous.

Humility consists in knowing that in what we call ‘I’ there is no source of energy by which we can rise.

Everything without exception which is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed. Everything without exception which is in me is absolutely valueless; and, among the gifts which have come to me from elsewhere, everything which I appropriate becomes valueless immediately I do so.

Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

Weil is always profound and challenging. Here she is challenging the very notion that the self – in any respect – can even take its own qualities for granted. When I say ‘this is me’ or ‘this is mine’ I kill the very thing I try to hold on to.

This thought has both political and spiritual consequences.

If I accept that what I might take to me mine was in fact given to me, then I realise I can only use it by also giving it away. I cannot hold on to anything and I cannot look within me to find more. Everything comes to me from outside, and it can only be properly valued when we give it back again.

This is also relevant to our social thinking. Some people claim that I am entitled to keep what I earn, what I own or what I am given. But of course I am entitled to nothing; we are given everything: our characters, our opportunities, our energies, our judgement. To claim, for instance, that I am entitled to more than some one else because I am cleverer than them is – from this perspective – perverse. We wrongly try to claim ownership of our intelligence as if that wasn’t in fact also a gift, and then we also want the further gift of more money and power than someone else.

This is what Weil means – by appropriating our gifts we make them valueless – they are just loans and they die if we do not give them back.

This thought is also found in the Georgian, Shota Rustaveli’s words:

What you’ve given away is yours.

Selfishness and the Self

The selfish act is not an act overly focused on the self; it is an act which depends upon a narrow or shrivelled sense of self or one which is overly concerned with the self as it appears in the eyes of others.

We must love ourselves – but at its best our love mirrors the best love we have for others. We want ‘the best’ for them – including we want them to be the best that they can be.

As the ancient Greeks observed, if we want the best for our child, it is to want them to be happy only in the sense that we want them to have led a life which is truly worthy or respect. [Hence the paradox that you can only judge someone to be happy when they are dead.]

So strangely – we must love others as we love ourselves; but also we should love ourself as we should love others.

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