If you think you don't need to, pride could be a problem
The advice Pope Francis gave in his homily Friday morning is a bit of wisdom I wish I’d heard 20 years ago. Well, it’s not like we haven’t all heard it more than once, for example:
“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” – Proverbs 16:18
And as a young child growing up in a Catholic family and in Catholic schools, I periodically heard about those seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride. I was taught they were deterrents to my eternal salvation. Most are easy to spot (especially in others). But pride is truly insidious, convincing us that we’re right, that we don’t need advice, that we have everything under control. We often don’t notice the wreck it’s making of our lives until we’re a, well, wreck.
Here’s a cautionary tale on why we need to be on the lookout for evidence of our own pride and to yank out this "root of all vices" before it destroys our well-being.
It was the fall of 2004. I was in my last year of formal training as I completed my internship. I began to experience dizziness, fatigue, and dull chest pain. While it would periodically remit, most days I felt the symptoms and they seemed to only get worse. I started worrying, and thinking that if I couldn’t handle this year, how could I manage a career and kids (which were later to come)? Although I attributed the issues somewhat to stress, I started believing the worst must be true. Something was seriously wrong. But I told no one, not even my wife, Amy, who would have been fully willing to listen.
I prided myself on my independence, years away from realizing that the life I truly desired, and needed, was a vulnerable, interdependent one. I was too proud to admit that I was struggling. I wondered if people around me noticed. For me, pride had manifested itself in greater admiration of my own capacity (in comparison to what others could offer) with a focus on self-preservation for fear of “losing face” or status with others.
One day I decided it was time to go see a doctor. He ran a number of tests. They were negative. Although I was relieved to some degree, part of me still wondered if something was wrong. I was still having a difficult time crawling outside of myself. Then, sensing my stress, he offered a prescription for Zoloft, which seemed appropriate at the time. I declined it (not knowing if I would later reverse the decision). He seemed surprised, but I just felt that there was more to understand before I was ready to take this step.
I began to look around. I noticed that I had gained some weight over the previous few years. My two-a-day Coke habit (facilitated by free soft drinks in the lounge) couldn’t have been helpful for my GI system. I rarely drank water. My diet started to look much less healthy than I liked to think it was. Even though I prided myself on being an active person, I realized that cool weather (and putting the bike away) brought about extended sedentary periods. Slowly, I started to acknowledge my own vulnerability, and that I may not be as independently smart and capable as I had thought. I began to acknowledge this to Amy (and eventually others), who had been much more vocal about her own particular struggle at this time. Gradually, over months and years as I detailed in my book, things started to change. But I sensed this would be a lifelong process.
But it wasn’t until years later, through my own struggles and those of others I met through my professional work, that I began to realize just how much they were constraints to our own psychological well-being, and our life as a whole. Evidece of the negative effects of the seven deadly sins on life in the modern world is everywhere: the obesity crisis; STD epidemics; the never-ending on-screen flaunting of intense, unabated anger and violence seen in schools and public forums; increasing gaps between poverty and wealth (with debilitating debt in the middle). All of which start to look less like personal lifestyle choices and more like transgressions committed against ourselves, ironically in pursuit of the same goals
– real life, real liberty, and the real pursuit of happiness and health.
But it wasn’t until years ago, mired in my own psychological struggle, that I began to sense why I heard pride described as the “root of all vices.” On a superficial level, I saw that my pride denied me the opportunity to even recognize that I was doing anything wrong or harmful. And in my inability to acknowledge my slothful, lustful behaviors, in my obliviousness to my own envious, greedy tendencies, I could only see one path. The one I was on. So when I started to do things that were hurting me, or others close to me, I was blind to a different route. I thought that my answers lay within. I was wrong. It was only when I began to look elsewhere, and abandoned the idea that I knew it all, that I was able to start seeing things more clearly, as others might have all along. In trusting myself less, I began to trust myself more – increasingly more conscious that I was always at an intersection, not a lonely, winding road.
As I worked (and will always work) to shed the layers of pride, something else started to emerge. One night I told Amy that if somehow I could focus only on not disappointing God (instead of myself and others), how freeing that would be! I knew that perfection for this goal was not possible, but slowly I worked and prayed that God would chip away my external façade of expert competence in all things. Something began to emerge. I began to let go of the pride that I could do it all on my own. I did not stop seeking out the truth and embracing big challenges. I just started to see the possibilities that came if I really acknowledged where I failed, and how I had done wrong. My statue started looking different than I thought it would. My roads started travelling in directions less planned, and often not trodden.
Something else emerged: a great freedom. Freedom in acknowledging that I might be wrong, or ineffective, or misguided altogether. Freedom in worrying less about how I appear and more about the beauty I can profess. Freedom in seeking out a truthful existence while knowing that others may not like what I say or do (and they might be right to feel that way), but could still respect how it was done. As I increasingly say to many people I know, I strive to embrace two things: transparency and clear intentions, which hopefully harbor less of my sinful desires. I know I fail, but I hope that I am getting better – at least in knowing when I go wrong. But I know that my pride remains my biggest deterrent to the health and happiness that I desire. Don’t get me wrong. I still work to find joy and gratitude in the efforts that I make, especially when they work out well. I just hope to let go of the pride that assumes I am responsible and deserving of it all.
Because when pride resurfaces, I feel anxious again that I am not living up to the expectations of myself and others. I worry that things will not work out. I feel depressed that what I am doing seems to matter little at all and that people don’t care. I feel paranoid that others might call me out as a fraud, or just odd. I start making excuses about why my greedy, envious, gluttonous desires aren’t really that bad at all. And then things just start going wrong.
It seems no way to live. I want to be free—free of mind, free of heart, free of soul. I don’t want to be weighed down by thoughts of myself. I want to live in the now, ready for what is to come. I want to be acutely aware of all that lies within, between, and beyond. I want to experience the intense beauty when it comes in its purest form. I don’t want to resign myself to shadows and images of the real thing. I want to be free to live as life calls. But it seems I must pay a price, and die to myself so that what rises up is better than I could have known. It is time for my pride to move along.
Jim Schroederis a pediatric psychologist at St. Mary’s Center for Children in Evansville, Indiana. He resides there with his wife, Amy, and their six children. He received a BS from Ball State University and graduated with a PhD in clinical psychology from Saint Louis University in 2005. He completed an internship the University of Louisville School of Medicine / Kosair Children’s Hospital and did his postdoctoral fellowship at St. Louis Children’s Hospital through the Washington University School of Medicine. He also writes a monthly column entitled Just Thinking (www.stmarys.org/articles) designed to inform, educate, and motivate parents and providers in applying pertinent research in meaningful, practical ways.