We are in the season of Lent. As I do every year, I attended Ash Wednesday services at Church Hill United Methodist Church down on River Street, our neighbor church. In the Christian calendar, Lent is the season for deep reflection the life of faith, a time for discerning what we feel needs to change in our lives, and making commitments to ourselves to work towards those changes. I used to think of Lent as the “beating ourselves up” season, but it really isn’t that. Or rather, it used to be that, but as humans have discovered that merely indulging in guilt feelings is largely non-productive, the Church today emphasizes Lent as a time for renewal. “God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life,” we read from a contemporary translation of Psalm 51. “Don’t throw me out with the trash, or fail to breathe holiness in me. Bring me back from exile; put a fresh wind in my sails!”
So it seems a good season to begin a series on the Seven Deadly Sins of the classical moral tradition – pride- envy – anger- greed- gluttony – lust-sloth-- to look at these good old baddies that have been with us for fourteen hundred years and to ask some questions about them. First, is this one of my own stumbling-blocks? Second, how can I get a more creative look at this sin, or character flaw so as to better understand it in myself and in others? Third, as a recent poll in England asked, what would I suggest to update the list of the seven cardinal sins or vices for our times? Should we create a “new list of contemporary taboos that capture the essence of modern morality?” As you think about this question, I will share with you with you what the British survey came up with: “cruelty, adultery, bigotry, dishonesty, hypocrisy, greed (the only original sin retained) and selfishness.” (from Michael Eric Dyson, Pride: The Seven Deadly Sins, Intro)
Pride, or arrogance in its pathological form, was believed by the medieval moralists to be first among sins because it separated man from God and therefore opened the floodgate to a host of other sins. The Greeks called it “hubris,” the egotistic certainty that one could avoid or outwit one’s fate by cleverness or self-determination. (You may remember how well that worked out for Oedipus, the poster boy for hubris, whom the gods decreed would kill his father and marry his mother, and who wound up doing both even after extraordinary measures were taken to keep him from achieving either. It ended very badly.).
Although we do not embrace a fatalistic theology ourselves or teach that the gods have an unavoidable fate in store for us, hubris is still the cause of many a tragic downfall of people and empires. Bernie Madoff may come to mind. If we were to envision an icon for hubris, it might be an image of a someone like Madoff with his fingers in his ears saying, “LA LA LA… I don’t want to hear about the consequences of my actions!” Pride cometh before a fall… and sometimes before a hefty prison sentence as well.
In contemporary terms, we can think of pride in terms of excessive ego and individualism: the idea that one is superior, above others, deserves more, is so self-reliant as to not need relationships and not need to cooperate or find common ground with others. It is a vice that frequently manifests today as entitlement, and unearned self-regard. Pride is not just an individual vice, but can be a cultural vice when it manifests as nationalism.
In his Introduction to a little book on the deadly sin of pride, Michael Eric Dyson quotes psychotherapist Philip Chard, who says that “given our national plague of entitlement combined with our go-it-along approach to the world, I’d say we’re full of ourselves.’” Chard claims that the U.S. is “bedeviled with narcissists, egomaniacs and spoiled brats” and warns that “ominously, excessive pride, individual and collective, has preceded the demise of the world’s great empires.” I would add in agreement with Chard that while pride makes for a stirring 4th of July observance and is never harmful when tempered with humility, it makes a very poor cornerstone of foreign policy and international relations in a global community.
The medieval moralists cautioned that pride was one of the most difficult sins to detect in oneself. I was thinking about that idea one day recently when the universe paid me the great favor of showing me how easy it is to fall into the sin of pride, using me as my own sermon illustration.
I was in a long line at the Starbucks in the Palm Beach, FL airport. As you may know, getting a cup of coffee at Starbucks is no simple routine: there are long lists of glamorous choices on the menu. You can have coffee with 2% milk, coffee with cream, with soy milk, with skim milk. You can have a latte, which involves frothed milk, or a café au lait, which is the same thing but without the frothing. There are sexy drinks with names like Mochachinos and the sizes go from the comprehensible “short and tall” to the faux-Italianese, “grande and venti.”
There is a reason that Dunkin’ Donuts aficionados tend to reserve special disdain for Starbucks. It’s because Dunks epitomizes the humble, great hot cup of coffee that gets the working man and woman started on their day, and Starbucks is pretentious. But there was no Dunks in sight so I was in the Starbucks line, checking my watch and shifting my heavy carry-on bag from shoulder to shoulder, watching all these people place orders for Venti Machhiattos and Cinnamon Dolce Lattes and I was getting irritated because the workers were moving so slowly. A few critical thoughts passed through my mind about management and employee training. I was drifting into typical middle-class American entitlement.
Right in front of me in line was a really sharp-looking professional woman wearing a designer suit and carrying a really fantastic purse and briefcase. She turned toward me and we exchanged one of those exaggerated sighs and subtle eye-rolling moments that people do at such times. I mention how spiffy she was because I admit to a juvenile thrill of pride that such an elegant, classy person would involve me in her sense of self-importance. Our unspoken exchange had one meaning: “We deserve better than this.”
And that is the essence of pride. In a phrase, “It’s all about me.” This isn’t a spiritual crime on par with murder, of course, but look what it does: among other harms, pride perpetuates the illusion that there is a superior and an inferior in human relations, and that there are some who deserve to receive and some who deserve to serve. And why? Because that’s the way of the world.
Well of course that is not the “way of the world.” It is the way of the world we know, and not the world as it could or should be. Classist arrogance and assumptions are the result from a long human history of economic and social structures put into place and maintained by systems of exploitation and dominance. We have all been exposed to their potent ideologies. Notice that I referred to my female companion in the Starbucks line as “classy” and that I was proud to be considered her social peer.
Arrogant pride is a socially transmitted spiritual disease.
Let’s unpack this a little bit more, because there’s more to it. Part of my eye-rolling impatience came from my life experience as someone who has worked for years in coffee shops and delis, retail establishments and in customer service. So I have a legitimate personal pride that comes from a history of hard work. But there is also this: I have always slept safely in a bed at night and started my day with the opportunity to eat breakfast. I always had a working car to get to work, or the good health and mobility that allowed me to use public transportation when I had no car. I had the benefit of an education, a good command of the language, and the advantage of white skin. I’m still proud of my retail and service work history, but it is also my moral obligation to acknowledge that I had some major advantages out of the starting gate.
Back in the Starbucks line, I could hear, as I got closer to the counter, that the employees (or “baristas” as they’re called in Starbucks-lingo), were speaking a French patois that I began to recognize as Haitian. It took me a moment of careful listening and watching to verify.
It hit me: My god, these people are Haitian.
And they’re depressed. They’re disoriented and depressed, obviously preoccupied with worry and grief about their homeland and their loved ones.
As I stood there feeling frozen with shame for my obnoxious thoughts, a young guy cut the line and thrust his cardboard cup at one of the women behind the counter: “Could I get some actual foam on this, please?” he said. Now I was more embarrassed than ever. I was part of this crowd of people who felt entitled to special designer coffee.
It was my turn to order. “I don’t want any coffee,” I said to the heavy, friendly man who stood at the cash register. “Okay, you want a water? Or tea?” he asked in his lilting accent. I said I would have a water. “Okay, it’s right there,” he said, as if helping a baby. I took a bottle from the bin in front of me. “Are you from Haiti? Are you all Haitian?” I asked. “Yea,” he said. “All us four are. He’s not.” “I just want to say how sorry I am,” I said. “I’m sorry for you and your country.” I stuffed some money in the tip cup and turned to get out of the line, suddenly very embarrassed. “Ma’am,” the man said, and I turned back.
“You still have to pay for the water.”
The thing about pride is that it is invisible, it does not seem to be physically harmful and it is often unaware of itself. It is above all a distortion of perception that whispers “I, we, are separate, We are special, I am above, we are winners, you are losers,” when plain scientific knowledge informs us we are not at all separate beings, but are interconnected and interrelated to all that is. “All my relations,” say the Lakota. Mitakuye oyasin. They mean not just blood kin, but animals, trees, plants, rocks, earth. Quantum physics validates this understanding of our place in things: there ain’t that much to be proud of most of the time, when we consider the fact that we’re all feeding off of each other’s energy and labor. Of course there are legitimate, wonderful forms of pride: motherly pride, fatherly pride, artistic pride, pride in a day’s good work – but there are many more causes for humility, wonder at our interrelatedness, and gratitude.
That’s why I salute the claiming of the word pride by historically marginalized peoples. Gay pride. Black pride. Hispanic pride. Deaf pride. Wheelchair pride. Senior pride, just to name some. These are people whose contribution to society has been diminished or rendered invisible by the sin of pride in a majority population that fears them, has a vested interest in exploiting them, doesn’t want to be responsible for them, doesn’t want to take the trouble to accommodate them, or would like to dismiss them. The bold, surprising reclaiming of the word pride away from those with ego and societal advantage has the wonderful effect of confronting arrogance by claiming dignity. PRIDE. It announces from a people long discounted that we are here, we have survived, we stand tall, we have a place, we will not remain invisible for anyone’s comfort or prejudice.
So pride goeth before a fall, and those falls may hurt us individually, as families, communities or nations, but they can be redeemed if they are retrieved as learning opportunities. In earnestly trying to refrain from thoughts or acts of excessive pride, arrogance, or vainglory, we will, actually, make more space for for the recognition of our interrelatedness with all people and things, and therefore for more reverence and awe.
After we have recovered from the fall from grace that follows excessive pride,
after we have taken responsibility for our illusions and replaced them with wisdom,
we may discover that good pride – the legitimate and hard-earned self-satisfaction that can come to a soul on a journey of love – may also cometh after a fall.
And that is our good news.