Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Wrestling with the seductions of pride....


Pride and hope and desire like crushed herbs in his heart sent up vapours of maddening incense before the eyes of his mind. He strode down the hill amid the tumult of suddenrisen vapours of wounded pride and fallen hope and baffled desire. They streamed upwards before his anguished eyes in dense and maddening fumes and passed away above him till at last the air was clear and cold again. (James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 86)

Pride was my wilderness and the demon that lead me there was fear. (Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel, p. 191)

There is a deceptively seductive and paradoxical quality to pride. Without it, one is almost literally paralyzed; and with too much of it, one is trapped in a capsule of self-sabotage. Competing for a larger share of pride on the international stage, as an obsessive game in which both trump and putin are currently enmeshed, gives voice only to the hollowness of both voices. Attempting to forge a gordion know committing both peoples of the United States and Russia to their ‘pride’ chase, is also a shell-game of significant proportions, in which millions of people are at risk. Tragically, when they both believe their own favourable press clippings, manufacturing them, themselves for the most part, they have crossed the boundary from pride into narcissism and there is really no chance their people will join them, at the end of the day.

Pride is also underpinning the British “Brexit” vote, cloaked in a mask of national independence and autonomy. Pride, in so many instances, undergirds so many decisions that lead to division, alienation, isolation and abandonment. A Russian professor in the mid-seventies, renowned for his large physical presence, even larger voice, and humungus library, teaching in a Canadian university, was fond of ridiculing the Russians, by sardonically pointing out the Russian solution to every problem: “eliminate it!” There is already too much evidence that trump has adopted this method in his executive decisions about personnel, although some have obliged him by sabotaging their own careers, once again, it can be argued, through a surfeit of pride.

As one of the original “sins,” pride does have a track record of preceding a fall almost as if the blindness to the need for correction, and for any attempt to offer correction, pushes an individual past what the rest of the world will tolerate. Pride of a parent, we all know, can result in extreme emotional abuse as the child is transformed into the means of building, growing and sustaining the parent’s reputation among the neighbours and co-workers, potentially even without either the parent or the child being fully conscious of the abuse of power. We have all met those who, through the words, actions and attitudes of their parents, believed they would never measure up to the parent’s expectations, which, then, naturally become in the grown child’s mind, no longer an expectation but an unmet, failed “demand”.  And that emptiness, that now conscious “failure” haunts the person for the rest of his/her life.

Conversely, pride can and does wrap itself around opposite attitudes, a kind of inverted snobbery, through which people without much formal education, living on a meager salary while doing punishing work, cast aspersions on those who have acquired an education, and possibly an income and professional stature that over-shadows that of their parents. “Why go to university?” they might ask, “if you’re only going to get married and have kids!” Pride, too, wraps itself in uniforms, military, clerical, police, and all forms of law enforcement and public protection. Those wearing such garb, at least at the beginning, have put on a kind of alternative ego, one behind which they can (and often do) hide their true sentiments, attitudes, beliefs and actions. And it is not only in ‘uniforms,’ but also in positions of power and statue, titles, degrees, pride is woven into the fabric of those “achievements”. Too often, children, in order to prove their “mettle” to their over-achieving, and highly insecure parents, have to demonstrate their  having graduated from childhood/adolescence to adulthood by acquiring a degree and a profession.

And when the relationship is reduced to one characterized by transaction, in which one person is expected to complete the other, and not merely complement or supplement the other, the dependency of the ‘parent’ so tarnishes the experience for both, as to render it prematurely obsolete, so devalued as to have been, on reflection, manipulated by the parent.

And this model applies not only within the family but also in the workplace world. The parent model, (not as mentor, coach, advocate and supporter) but as the one who begins from his/her own scarcity, is too often the genesis of decisions that manifest first as success, and later as hollow suits, mansions, expensive cars, and professional titles.

In fact, it can be, and here is, argued that too many of those who seek and land in titled positions are the very ones least worthy of those offices but their insecurity, their tainted sense of self, for whatever reason(s), masked by words like ambition, go-getter, public servant, generosity, public-spirited, kind and even caring….Whether they might be silently and anonymously “competing” with a highly successful sibling, or even a parent, or whether they might be covering up a different sort of scarcity, they believe they can “fill” that emptiness through getting the corner office, the promotion, the bonus, and the stock options. Similarly, many of the unneeded purchases we make, are our hollow and often pathetic attempt to fill up some scarcity, insecurity, couched in silent self-talk in terms like “not good enough”…..as if the acquisition of some costly item will somehow restore our wounded pride and sense of self.

Another way in which pride serves as a seductive siren is to convince us that we need a product, or a position in order to have “friends” and to be accepted. Another of the many extrinsic “add-ons” that we think, or convince ourselves to believe, will bring an enhancement of our confidence, our sense of self, and at root, our pride.

In these many manifestations, it is not pride but the absence of pride that is driving our decisions, our perceptions, our attitudes, and even our beliefs. Much of the religious “life” depends too on the notion that, as sinners, we “come short of the glory of God” (as Paul writes), and through our association, acceptance and embrace of a saving deity, we will guarantee our place in a heavenly afterlife. Is there really anyone who believes that such “bartering” of our attitudes, perceptions and beliefs, in such a blatantly transactional manner, will assure anyone of such a security?

Here is one of the many nexus points at which the pride of the institution intersects with the pride of the individual. The church’s pride, even hubris, in the unquestioned and unquestioning dogma, rules, regulations, liturgies and biblical interpretations and adherence to creeds. Defining a faith, while relatively significant in order to help an individual join and remain as a member/adherent (with all of the implications of that including writing cheques, instruction, parenting, schooling, and various life-passages liturgies like baptism, confirmation, marriage, and funerals), too often puts the needs of the institution ahead of those of its parishoners.

Certitude grafted to human pride, in the name of God, does both God and proponent a dis-service. Limiting God with human constrictions and expectations, seems paradoxically to be an initiative away from belief. And, of course, to then exclude those who might push back, disagree or protest, is to evoke the sounds and rhythms of unmitigated hubris.

Parents will often tell their children how “proud” of them they are. Such expressions often accompany a child’s most recent achievement or decision, or act of  compassion, mercy or support out of the spotlight. As a conditioning response, such expressions of pride have the capacity to bond parent and child, while initiating a memorable moment of positive learning. On the ‘under’ side of this expression of pride, however, is the obverse: does a parent tell a child of his/her shame if and when the child deviates from the parent’s expectations? The potential of linking the parent’s emotions in a dependency with the child has the negative impact of enmeshing both into an unhealthy reduction of the rich and clean and clear engagement of each with the other.

Pride of place/race/language/ethnicity is another of the many  manifestations of this human trait. And while such pride helps to grow “roots” in young people, it can and often does generate feelings of superiority among the insiders, thereby automatically excluding newcomers from full acceptance and full participation in those vested (and even gated) communities. Just as in the name of God we build walls, gates, hurdles and even barbed-wire fences both to keep some people “in” and others “out”, so too do we do the same in the name of our chosen “group”…We have all heard of the multiple expressions of genuine estrangement, separation, and even alienation of people who do not match the identities within the community, without even having been offered the opportunity to contribute in ways that make them feel welcome. Whether this applies to immigrants, refugees, or even new neighbours, or people seeking to volunteer in their newly adopted communities, the pride of the “insiders” is clearly linked to the insecurity of those same people that they might lose control of their respective levers of power.

Silo’s of pride have been erected inside church spires, service clubs, university convocation halls, political parties, governments, and even under the hoods of exclusive brands of cars, clothes, shoes, schools and neighbourhoods. And because we, generally, consider pride to be among our “better angels” we rarely, if ever, discuss openly how we each contribute to the alienation of others. Our tilting toward transactional parameters for each human encounter, (what have you done for me lately?) is another of our perhaps unconscious genuflections to our pride, in that transactions, by definition, are simple, easily defined and executed, without excessive chance for being judged. We are, then, able to delude ourselves into believing that we maintain our control, the ultimate and highly negative expression of our pride, or just another manifestation of our fear of loss of control.

One of the most feared expressions in our world is, “I do not know!” in answer to a question…not only because for many questions a simple “google” will answer it, but also because, it confronts our limits and our vulnerabilities. Medical students are judged daily by their professors and clinical instructors on the “correctness” of their diagnosis and treatment plans. Not to be clear and certain, being open to the option of being both undecided or uncertain is just not an option, if one is to succeed to pass through the hoops of the schooling. And so, after nearly a decade of such expectations met and even exceeded, how can we expect such “graduates” to submit easily, freely and readily to the multiple complexities of each human being, when faced with new symptoms in a private consult?

Perhaps, it is not only among medical professionals that we have excessively “hot-housed” the plant of pride, as our shared, universal cosmetic to “fake it until you make it”…..as a code for “success”. And while there are no regulations for the growth of this “plant” and no scientifically measureable side-effects of its injection into our multiple conversations, and no signs on the horizon that our public consciousness is about to question our deep dependence on its vapours, spreading through most of our conversations, we might want to ask ourselves what aspects of our lives make us proud, and what aspects of our lives ‘cover’ for other features about which we are much less comfortable.

It is not when we are puffed up that we are “at our best” but rather when we are honestly humbled, honestly vulnerable, wounded, weak and needing and seeking help, support and compassion that we are potentially most authentic. It is at such times that all the pretense and the masks have fallen away, and it is in such a state that we are most open to real human encounters, not to mention also those sacred moments with God, however we have come to envision the deity.

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