Maine Voices: Wisdom for dealing with pride, our most nagging human problem
The Ukrainian response to the Russian invasion continually reminds us of the virtues of selflessness, compassion and courage. But the invasion also reveals the hubris of human nature – most tragically, in dictator Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s example prompted me to revisit pride as our most enduring human problem. Exploring its meaning deepens our awareness of the many manifestations of hubris. They range from relatively mild cases of excessive pride to evil acts that cause untold suffering.
Discussing hubris, philosopher Paul Tillich (1886-1965) wrote: “A demonic structure causes man to confuse natural self-assertion with destructive self-elevation.
We must pay attention to the confusion identified by the German-American professor (he taught at Harvard and the University of Chicago). Self-esteem is a desirable and healthy aspect of human nature. But it’s qualitatively different to rise above others and use that power to intimidate them.
People with great power who lose sight of the distinction between self-esteem and pride can cause untold damage. Perhaps many of us would give examples of such blindness. But we are all sensitive to this confusion. Tillich reminds us of the fall of every great culture in history. Moreover, he notes that even humility can slip into pride.
Novelist and social critic David Foster Wallace, in his acclaimed commencement speech at Kenyon College, described pride as the “default setting” he slipped into when, impatient and tired, he found stuck in an endless supermarket queue.
So, he said, it was all about me: “my hunger, my fatigue, my desire” to go home and slow down. I am the center of the universe and my immediate needs and feelings “are what should determine the priorities of the world”. The good news, Wallace said, is that we can catch ourselves being that way before we act.
Most of the time, he says, if we are aware enough to give ourselves a choice, we “can choose to look differently” at the people around us, open our hearts to them, and in doing so, we can find ourselves “on fire.” with the same force that made the stars.
Hubris, often called “spiritual sin,” is the subject of the world’s great music, art, and literature: the Greek tragedies, in which “mortals” deny their limits and challenge the gods; Shakespeare’s plays; the poetry of Milton; Icarus and other myths; Genesis (eg, The Tower of Babel); Beowulf; certain folk tales, etc.
Fortunately, people engage in many practices that deal with pride. These include: self-reflection; openness to criticism; honesty about one’s biases; modesty; practices and traditions of faith communities (eg confession and absolution); notice to which finite things we attribute an infinite value; sacrificial acts of kindness; recognition; the familiar serenity prayer (group of 12 steps) for grace, courage and wisdom.
The most recent Eastern European president (before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky) to address a joint session of the US Congress was Vaclav Havel, then the new President of the Czech Republic, in 1990. He put us to the challenge of “learning to put morality before” politics. , technology and economics; let go of the “vanity” that we are the “apex of creation” and take care of the Earth entrusted to us.
A central theme of his address was also that of this column: our need for humble self-awareness.
Havel asserted, “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere but in the human heart, in the human power of thought, in human modesty and in human responsibility…in something higher than my family, my country, my business, my success.” It’s a moral responsibility, he said, “to be ordered to be where, and only where, all our actions…will be rightly judged.”
The speech drew 17 standing ovations from Congress.