“He that is proud eats up himself; pride is his glass, his trumpet, his chronicle; and whatever praises itself but in the deed, devours the deed in the praise”—Shakespeare
ONE of the perils of being human is to easily spot pride and arrogance in others, and miss or totally ignore them in oneself. Only the truly humble do not fall into the trap. Yet even humility, like love or charity, can be pretended. Remember Uriah Heep, the character created by Charles Dickens in his novel “David Copperfield”? He had a most unnerving admission: “What an ‘umble man I am!” However softly or loudly we laugh at his fatuous self-description, there is no denying that most of us would feel the same way about ourselves sans the loud sputtering. And that, I believe, partly explains the peril angle, namely, that while we rise up in arms often collectively against the proud and arrogant, we forget the proverbial three fingers that point in our direction.
Take the recent case of a media personality who, in his frustration over not being given an interview by a high government official, gave vent to his anger most generously by expletives and name-calling that, in the language of political correctness, even characterize the official as mentally challenged. Anyone objective enough to sift through the trash language of the media personality could see his point and even take it with sympathy. It is as simple as reading ABC. If he, a close ally of the leader of the land, cannot gain an interview with a social welfare official without going through a strict protocol, how would ordinary and poor citizens of the Republic have access into his valuable services? But in the ensuing flow of events, various more powerful and more influential allies and a whole club of the officially armed government agency came to the high official’s defense as well as offense. The media personality aired an apology that was as clearly forced on him by the backlash as it was purposely unspecific on who he was apologizing to. Now the high govenment official, obviously buoyed by the sympathy from both citizens and the clannish officially armed agency of government he is from, is making hefty demands on the offending personality for the apology to be accepted: publication of apology in the national dailies and huge donations to many specified government organizations. This illustrates only the social and financial price of pride and arrogance. But one wonders though if the high government official, in trying to check pride and arrogance in someone else, did not reveal his own.
In Catholic spirituality pride whose outward expression (the worst kind of facial, if you may) is arrogance is the first of of the seven deadly sins. The Catechism defines it as “an inordinate self-esteem and self-love, which seeks attention and honor, and sets oneself in competition with God” (#1866). This definition alone implies that there is such a thing as a legitimate or healthy pride rooted in assessing the truth about oneself without holding oneself over and above others or in competition with God. Healthy pride is, for instance, realizing that whenever I think I am always right, I am grossly wrong, or that, to follow St. Augustine, when I love myself “even to the contempt of God”, it is not love I am in but sin.
We all recommend humility as antidote to pride and arrogance. But how do we guard ourselves against false humility or being clones of Uriah Heep?
First, I believe, it is by coming to grips with humility as a matter of the heart, not of the mouth or of the face. The reason is simple. The heart, according to the Scriptures, is the first target of pride as its dwelling-place; and it is the proud heart that the Lord rejects. “The Lord detests,” says Proverbs, “all the proud of heart” (Prov 16:5). Knowing that may prevent us from being content with pretended and external humility which, like fake news, harvests fake adherents.
Second, it is by practising humility before God instead of only before humans. The Apostle James has a very crucial advice for all of us: “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up” (James 4:10). Our problems abound when we use humility to gain praise or approval from other people rather than to set ourselves right before God. People’s approval may gain us self-confidence but God’s approval is more necessary to gain heaven, to gain salvation. And it is the really and truly humble that he approves of. “Though the Lord is exalted,” says the book of Proverbs, “he looks kindly on the lowly; though lofty, he sees them from afar” (Psalm 138:6).
Third, it is by learning from the consequences of pride. Dante’s “Inferno” tells us, in his own literary masterpiece language, how Satan’s pride that made him utter to God his infamous “Non serviam” (“I will not serve”) so as to serve only himself as his own god ended up losing his “lux” or light as “Lucifer” (literally, ‘bringer of light’) only to cast himself into the eternal darkness of God’s absence. Scripture warns us of this. “Pride precedes destruction; and the spirit is exalted before a fall” (Prov 16:18).
Fourth, if we were to listen to fellow humans, we probably would dismiss the intellectually challenged and resent but eventually applaud those whose stored-up knowledge or brilliance exhibit inordinate self-esteem or hubris. But the Scriptures think otherwise. “Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them” (Prov 26:12).
Finally, from the Christian mindset of Paul the Apostle, we are told why, other than being more favorable to God’s action, humility is the perfect antidote to the ravages of pride and arrogance: Humility is the perfect partner, nay the sine-qua-non of charity. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with those who are lowly. Do not be conceited” (Rom 12:16).
To be sure, we should not delude ourselves about our ability to smother our own pride and arrogance. St. Francis de Sales, though facetiously, warns us about its surviving abilities: “Pride dies twenty minutes after death.”
Just as only the Lord can make us love as he loves, only he can make us humble as his Son is.