[Beliefnet, August 15, 2002]
Here’s why we hate those family newsletters we get during the holidays: "It’s been a great year for the Lamplighters! Greg had been hoping for a promotion, but what a surprise when the CEO came to his desk and begged him to take over the company. The whole office chipped in and gave the family a week in Paris to celebrate. Wasn’t that nice?
"Of course Jeanne has been busy as well. You probably saw that news item about how she rescued a school bus full of children from a kidnapper, armed only with a plastic comb. Nice to think, too, that the poem she wrote for last year’s holiday letter will be chiseled into the wall of the Library of Congress. The twins did so well at the state tap-dance championship that Spielberg is crafting a movie around them, while Greg Jr.’s science fair project was the topic of much excitement in the New England Journal of Medicine."
Pride: we hate it. When we look at the Lamplighters, we sympathize with the ancients who called Pride the chief Deadly Sin.
But here’s a modern complication: Isn’t pride a good thing when we’re proud of our country or football team? Don’t we want our kids to be proud of themselves? Isn’t it lack of pride, low self-esteem, which causes people to make self-destructive choices in life?
The confusion stems from trying to stretch the little word "pride" over two far-flung meanings. What we dislike in the Lamplighters is narcissism—self-promotion, showing off, vanity. Let’s call that Pride One. What we want for our kids is more akin to confidence. We want them to have a healthy, balanced sense of self that won’t be tipped over by setbacks or peer pressure—Pride Two. This is a quiet, centered pride that is compatible with modesty because it doesn’t have a fretful need to show off.
The difference between Pride One and Pride Two is that the first kind is obsessed with comparisons. Pride One is always asking anxiously, Am I smarter than they are? Richer? Better-looking? This isn’t really pride at all, but a fragile shell laid over a pit of self-doubt.
The reverse can also be true: a person who appears to have no pride, to be filled with self-loathing, may actually be so convinced of his superiority that he finds his normal human failures devastating. It’s a shadow form of Pride One.
Pride Two, on the other hand, is content to refrain from comparative judgments, knowing how meaningless they are. Pride Two’s strength comes not from measuring yourself against others, but against your own inner standards. These standards can’t be based on arbitrary personal preference; many a bloody tyrant has slept with a tranquil conscience, because his homemade moral standards signed off on his behavior. Pride Two is never so complacent. It has a "workout" quality, as we honor the values of our faith community—honesty, generosity, courage—and keep pushing to meet them. Failures are taken in stride, because we didn’t have an exaggerated idea of our abilities in the first place. We learn from mistakes, get up and try again, like a runner always trying to beat his best time.
Pride Two means self-respect, not rootless self-esteem. What’s the difference? Self-esteem is like a happy-face sticker; self-respect is like a genuine smile. It can’t be acquired by repeating over and over what a swell person you are. You earn it by seeing yourself, day after day, year after year, trying to behave like you believe a swell person should.
Pride Two people are not just admirable, but likeable. They are confident enough to care about others and strong enough to give themselves freely. Because they are familiar with their own shortcomings they don’t draw attention to others’ faults. They’re both strong and kind. When we think about our kids, this is what we want for them—the gentleness that springs from self-assurance, and blooms into compassion.
The funny thing is, when you meet a person like this, you wouldn’t think, "My, she certainly is proud!" Pride Two isn’t really the right name for this; it doesn’t seem like Pride of any sort. It’s more like Humility.
Which brings us back to the Lamplighters. If you look at their holiday letter again, you’ll notice that it isn’t really showing off. They describe events straightforwardly, without embellishment or boasting. They’re telling you these things because they thought you were their friend. If you are, you’re happy for them and rejoice with them. Their joys do not detract from your own. Their success does not make you a failure.
It turns out the Lamplighters weren’t exhibiting Pride One—we were. They simply recounted what happened to them, but we immediately began comparing ourselves with them and feeling angry and put down. A dark, snake-headed bitterness reared up the instant we started reading. We wished that somehow we could prove ourselves better and more important than they are, and see them reduced and humiliated. We judged them, hated them, wanted them hurt.
This is why we need a Savior. We look so nice on the outside, but in the caverns of the heart vicious Pride is always brooding, ready to spring. Humility smashes our defenses, enables us to admit these dark emotions that frighten us, and admit we need help to be the people we long to be. No wonder Pride has long been called the great foe of spiritual health. No wonder they call it "Deadly."