A bit of self-pride seems part of the positive trait of self-esteem.
Yet we speak of pride before a fall. The story of Icarus is about a young man’s attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. Icarus ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall into the sea where he drowned. In flying too high he is often seen as possessing overconfident arrogance. The proverb ‘Pride goes before a fall’ seems apt, implying suffering for those too cocky for their own good.
On the other hand, sounding superior and important are favoured traits in today’s tough competitive economic climate. Even if you are not in business, you need to market your work skills in order to keep your own job or get another one.
“At home I am a nice guy: but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.” (Muhammad Ali)
And it is said that it can become counter-productive to be modest because you may not be taken seriously.
So is it really true that you will be like Icarus and suffer in some way as a result of being full of yourself and your ability? What’s so bad about a bit of self-pride?
In his book Essential Spirituality, Roger Walsh writes about noticing the sacred in other people.
He tells a story about an old woman sitting by the roadside outside her town who was approached by a traveller who asked “What kinds of people live in this town?”
“What were the people like in your home town?” queried the old woman.
“Oh, they were terrible!” fumed the traveller. “Liars, cheats, incompetents, you couldn’t trust any of them. I was glad to leave.”
“You’ll find the people in this town just the same.” Responded the old woman.
Not long afterwards, she was approached by a second traveller who also questioned her about the people in the town.
“”What were the people like in your home town?” she asked.
“Oh, they were wonderful!” exclaimed the traveller. “Fine, honest, hard-working, it was a privilege to be with them. I was so sorry to leave.”
“You’ll find the people in this town just the same. “responded the old woman.
So, how you see others and what you say about them reveals more about yourself than about them. You don’t want to seem to be a know-it-all full of self-pride who fails to notice the value in others. Few people want to appear big-headed about their own abilities at the cost of the abilities of others. Moreover, seeing what is valuable about others helps you be honest with yourself about your own limitations even when this is uncomfortable.
Spiritually-minded people acknowledge a source of deeper energy and wisdom beyond their own mind. They ask how can one not feel humbled by the wonders of the universe, or when seeing the power of altruistic love manifest in the most extreme circumstances. We are so often exposed to the scientific view, of an evolution without purpose and a universe as a meaningless machine, that no transcendent sacred force — whatever we want to call it — is allowed to exist.
But then we are pulled up short by tantalizing glimpses, of a mysterious quality within nature — perhaps triggered by a beautiful sunset, the wisdom of birds and animals, or the vastness of space — glimpses that offer a truly awe-inspiring experience of something beyond oneself. At such moments the mundane world is transfigured.
Such experiences, can lead to acknowledging a higher good and truth that exists beyond your own ability, and which is the source of inspiration for human effort. In this way of thinking, the focus is not on the strengths of humanity but on the strengths of the Divine presence within the human soul and accepting one’s dependence on this presence for finding tolerance, patience, and other virtue. Not, as do some Christians, in sanctimoniously promoting themselves as Godly and thus betraying a self-pride in being better than others. Instead, by genuinely bowing down to an origin of all that is good, the individual does not feel empty but full.
“Jesus is the God whom we can approach without pride and before whom we can humble ourselves without despair.” (Blaise Pascal)
Neither need one indulge in self-abasement as do some believers but rather celebrate one’s ability to be uplifted and share the spiritual power available: not in denying the inner strength in oneself but rather in recognising that it is received from a higher Divine source. A bit of self-pride might not be an appropriate attitude for those with this kind of true humility.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems
Nine-eleven was al-Qa’eda’s deliberate humiliation of the West. Such a cruel thing to do. I remember saying ‘Evil begets evil’, and so I am not surprised that this act of barbarism was followed by what I consider to be disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I would suggest that the brutality of some powerful people in the West can be heard in the voice of those politicians like US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld who said “There just aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan…We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around.”
Can human cruelty not also be seen in the action of President Bush who tossed aside the civilised principle of habeas corpus by setting up Guantanamo and other torture centres?
These recent acts of human cruelty are part of a long history of man’s inhumanity to man. The massacres, looting and capturing of slaves by forces led by Attila the Hun in 5th century eastern Europe; the unrestricted bombing of civilians living in cities like Gunernica during the Spanish civil war; the starvation, brutal treatment and extermination of Jews, and other victims of persecution in the Nazi concentration camps.
Human cruelty of course goes on all the time perhaps in less dramatic ways and in a much smaller scale than these. Malicious gossip can destroy a personal reputation; spiteful actions can result in huge distress; nasty comments within close relationships can cause longstanding wounds.
We can all succumb to anger but why do some people feel contempt, or want revenge and act out their feelings in these ways?
One answer that impresses me is to do with a common tendency towards self-orientation rather than concern for others and a materialistic rather than an ethical focus in our thinking. Depending on the way the individual chooses to live life, these two innocent inclinations can actually amount to self-centredness and preoccupation with bodily pleasures and possessions.
Prioritising number one means seeing things only from ones own selfish point of view rather than trying to understand the predicaments of others. Thinking in terms of physical things means neglecting the ethical dimension.
When people with this state of mind cannot get what they want, I would suggest they are likely to feel contempt towards those who do not favour them and revenge towards those who thwart their desires. Such hostility is the seed of cruel behaviour. When these feelings dominate and people believe they can get away with it, are they not more likely to do mischief, cause injury and act cruelly?
Not everyone thank goodness allows such ugly feelings to determine their actions. But some do. This is not to argue that people will not vary in their behaviour. Some are sometimes spontaneously cruel when experiencing strong feelings of scorn or wanting to get their own back on someone. Some people can make a deliberate plan to intentionally cause hurt. And yet others actually take sadistic pleasure in seeing inflicted pain.
Adolf Hitler is an example of the last of these who took great delight in repeatedly watching the film of the cruel deaths of those who had plotted to overthrow his regime. It’s all a matter of individual choice.
The main religions all warn against the dangers of this kind of selfish anger that can go wild like a forest fire. In his book Essential Spirituality Roger Walsh quotes a famous Zen story to dramatically makes this point.
A Japanese warrior approached a Zen master to request answers to some questions that had been troubling him. ‘What is it you want to know?’ queried the Zen master.
‘Tell me sir, do heaven and hell exist?’ ‘Ha! Snorted the Zen master in a tone that was half-laugh half-sneer. ‘What makes you think that you could understand such things? You are only an uneducated, brutish soldier. Don’t waste my time with your silly questions.’
For an instant the warrior froze in shock. No one, but no one ever speaks to a Japanese warrior like that. It meant instant death. ‘Are you too stupid to understand what I said?’ roared the Zen master. ‘Stop wasting my time and get out of here.’
The warrior exploded with rage. His hand flew like lightning to his sword and swept it aloft for the kill. But in the split second before the sword descended to crush the monk’s skull, he heard the words.
‘This is the gate to hell.’
Again the warrior froze in astonishment. His own rage brought hell to him and those he attacked. And the master had risked his life to make this fact inescapably clear. Breathing deeply, he slowly replaced his sword and bowed humbly in awe and respect.
‘And this,’ smiled the Zen master, ‘is the gate to heaven.’
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems