Is pride always bad? Is humility always good?

Nobody likes a braggart. We don’t like people who strut and crow and preen with their words. We don’t like being around people who try to steer every conversation back to themselves and their accomplishments. There are supposed to be rules about such things, even if we don’t speak them aloud. Didn’t your mother teach you better? we think. Don’t you know that the Bible says “Pride goeth before a fall”? And in our less charitable moments, we may secretly wish for someone to take the person down a notch.

But let’s be honest. Haven’t we ever tried to insert our accomplishments into a conversation? We go fishing for compliments. We troll for other people’s admiration and approval. We just need to do it with enough subtlety to get away with it, perhaps even to the point of allowing ourselves the illusion of humility. If we were honest with ourselves, we’d have to recognize that we want to brag. Not as an end in itself, of course. What we want is to be noticed. We want to be praised. But we don’t want to be labeled a braggart, someone who is proud, self-centered, stuck up, egotistical, full of themselves…the list of labels goes on.

But is pride always bad?

. . .

Centuries of Christian tradition hold humility to be a central Christian virtue, and pride to be its opposing vice, the most fundamental and original deadly sin. We can all easily think of negative examples of pride. But is the matter that black and white? Aren’t there times in which it feels right to be proud of something we’ve done? Don’t we want to tell our children, for example, that we’re proud of them from time to time?

Here’s the social psychological side. We are created for relationship, and because of that we have a deep need to belong. Every child needs to grow up in an environment in which they know they are loved and cherished. That doesn’t necessarily mean being doted upon or showered with hugs and kisses. But children need to see their intrinsic worth mirrored in the eyes of those who care for them; they need to feel the warmth and acceptance of their touch.

Children who receive such loving care grow up with a sense of security that frees them from self-concern. That’s the irony of much of the prideful behavior we see in adults: it’s less about being “full of themselves” than about trying to fill a void that never should have been left empty in the first place. Think of the characteristics often associated with what’s known as narcissistic personality disorder: the manipulative charm, the lust for control, the self-righteous anger. That’s the more extreme version of the dynamic I’m describing. Put differently, delusions of grandeur can be the flip side of the terror of feeling small and worthless.

We can also look at the matter from the other side: is humility always good?

Surely, not everything that goes by the name of “humility” is positive. I don’t just mean the false humility we now call “humblebragging” — superficially self-effacing words that nevertheless attempt to draw attention to how great one is. That’s not humility: that’s pride wearing a mask.

But you may know people who deflect all praise with a lowered head, even when they’ve done something richly deserving of the gratitude of others. Is that humility, or shame? Imagine that you’ve said a sincere “Thank you!” to someone who’s done their job well and faithfully. What kind of response do you expect? It would be one thing for the person to smile warmly and say, “You’re very welcome,” and let that be the end of it. But it’s another when the person refuses your thanks, telling you how what they did was worthless. There are two opposite possibilities here. First, the person may be fishing for more praise, more reassurance. Or second, the person is actually allergic to praise, as if they were constitutionally unable to receive it.

Either way, I don’t think this is what we should mean by Christian humility.

. . .

Allow me to make a suggestion. Our typical uses of the the words “humility” and “pride,” together with the accompanying adjectives “humble” and “proud,” are too static. We speak as if humility and pride were things that people have or don’t have. We speak of being humble or being proud as if this were a binary distinction: you’re either this or that. Our brains, after all, like order, like putting things in their conceptual cubbyholes. We feel more at ease when we’ve put things — and people — in what we think are their proper places.

But life is more complicated than that, as are human beings. People are not either proud or humble, period. Pride can masquerade as humility, and some expressions of what we might call humility arise from undue self-concern. And ironically, telling our kids that we’re proud of them (and yes, this too can be overdone or done with mixed motives) can lead to less prideful behavior rather than more, because they are secure in their parents’ love and don’t feel a need to prove themselves.

We need, therefore, a more dynamic understanding of both pride and humility. We’ll take a crack at that in the next post.

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