This morning I am thinking about pride. Where pride comes from, what makes it valuable and what makes it problematic. My central thought is this:
The price of pride is pain.
Christianity says that pride is a sin; I don’t agree, though I certainly recognize that pride can lead to sin — arrogant dismissal of others’ value, nationalism, racial divides and conflicts, a hundred other ways that pride “goeth before a fall,” as they say. I also see where pride is strength: pride in my accomplishments, as a writer, as a teacher, as a human being, is often what keeps me going in the face of continued struggle and defeat. Pride lifts up the downtrodden and helps them to fight back against oppression, often in the face of overwhelming odds. There is value in pride. It also may be that pride is essentially inevitable, that in a culture that constantly appraises the value of everything as good or bad, better or worse than everything else, there is no way a rational person could not see which of their traits are on the approved list, and feel a bump, or a jump, in their worth.
But like everything else that has value, pride has a cost. I think that pride has to be earned. I say it is pain, but I include painstaking effort in that; anyone who has fought hard for a skill or an ability or to overcome a prodigious obstacle knows that pain is not only limited to sharp injuries. There’s a great scene in To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout and Jem are trying to find anything in their father Atticus Finch to be proud of, and then they find that he is a crack shot with a rifle; when they ask their neighbor Miss Maudie why Atticus never bragged or showed off his ability, she says that Atticus knows better than to take pride in something that is a gift from God. His ability, the steady eye and steady hand that lets him hit everything he aims at, was not earned: it was inborn. (There’s an argument to be made that practice and training made him better, but this is both a simplification and a speculation on Maudie’s part. The point remains.) I am an American, but I did not work for that: it was an accident of my birth. I take no pride in accidents. I do take pride in the actions I have taken, the burdens I have carried, for the sake of my society, and which have made that society better; I vote, I pay taxes, I participate in the cultural and political conversations, and probably most importantly, I teach. I think that those who serve, both in civil society and in the military and public safety, have earned and deserve their pride in themselves and the country they helped to build and maintain. They (we, if I may be bold) have paid for it in effort and sacrifice, and often (they, not me) in suffering and loss.
I want to say that those who do not earn their pride before they hold it, flaunt it, and press eagerly forward to show it, chins out and hands balled into fists, will pay for their pride in suffering afterwards: that the fall will come, that they will be humbled and humiliated. But of course that doesn’t always happen. The universe is not just. There is an easy way that people with unearned pride can avoid the pain themselves, and that is simply to move the suffering off of themselves and onto others, and thus you have the Ku Klux Klan, and domestic abuse, and bullies. And Donald Trump.
But for those who are not that, who are not victimizers and warmongers, the point I want to make is that pride must be earned.
And the price of pride is pain.