Monday, October 29, 2007

The Three Aspects of Pride

If I had a truly photographic memory, the rest of this post would be a verbatim account of the absolutely wonderful homily our pastor gave yesterday on the Gospel reading of the Pharisee and the publican, and pride. Unfortunately I do not have a photographic memory, and Father doesn't write his homilies down, so I'll do my best to recreate some of his thoughts and add my own unworthy comments.

Father began by reminding us how easy it is to judge ourselves as totally unlike the Pharisee, given the hindsight of a couple of millenia. After all, who among us would stand before God and say that we're so glad we're great people unlike that poor rotten sinner over there? But by rejecting the extreme example of pride that the Pharisee represents, we sometimes overlook our own struggles with the deadliest of deadly sins. Father broke up the tendency toward pride into three different sections, areas where most of us have some problems or other: pride, he said, is comprised of thoughtlessness or carelessness, extreme sensitivity, and rationalization.

Thoughtlessness or carelessness is the first aspect of pride. It is very subtle, but very recognizable to everyone but ourselves. Father said it was this kind of pride that, for instance, makes a person perpetually late for everything; underneath that persistent unpunctuality is the belief that everyone else will wait for you, that you are important enough to be worth waiting for. This aspect of pride is focused on the self and its own comforts, which leads it to be completely careless of the thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs of the others around you. It makes us rude without meaning to be, malicious because we can get away with it, unkind, inconsiderate, and even boorish. No matter how badly we behave, though, we don't see it, so long as we are getting what we want out of each and every encounter with our fellow men.

The second aspect of pride Father spoke of is extreme sensitivity. This is not merely a healthy self-esteem that rejects actual abuse; this is a warped sense that we are positively owed everyone else's good respect, good opinions, and good behavior. The thoughtlessness that leads us to ignore other people's thoughts and feelings is tied to this kind of sensitivity which demands that everyone else around us is permanently focused on our thoughts and feelings. We are thus simultaneously capable of overlooking our absolutely rude behavior while holding friends and family responsible for an unintentional slight; we are likely to hold grudges against them for things much less serious than the kinds of behavior which we expect everyone to accept from us.

Which brings me to Father's third aspect of pride, rationalization. Tied closely to the first two, rationalization allows us to excuse faults in ourselves for which we will all but crucify others. We might, for instance, think of ourselves as the kind of people who arrive fashionably late to a party, but if anyone should insult us by arriving seriously late to one of ours! The rationalization which allows us to do this can also destroy our souls; we may know all of the Commandments, understand what constitutes sin, know the precepts of the Church, etc., but our skill at excusing ourselves for things that might be "sin" for all the "little people" can make us overlook not only mere faults, but actual vices, in ourselves.

I haven't written one of these fictional conversations in a while, but it seems to me that it is possible to illustrate what Father means by showing an example of a ridiculously exaggerated encounter between Aunt Superbia and her niece, Alma:

"Alma, you're late. I told you to meet me here at precisely 3:00, and it's at least five past three now," the silver-haired woman of imposing size said crossly, pushing her large shopping bag under the antique store's tea table so that it was seriously in the way of the small nervous woman who sat opposite her.

"I'm sorry, Aunt Superbia," Alma replied, drawing her feet away from the shopping bag. "I thought we weren't meeting until next week, so I..."

"I told you on Sunday that my Ladies' Guild meeting was moved to next week," the other woman interrupted curtly. "I should have thought that even someone as bird-witted as you are could have realized that our meeting would have to be moved. If I hadn't called you an hour ago I suppose you wouldn't have come at all."

"Well, I..."

"Mind that shopping bag! I've bought the perfect replacement for that antique lamp that got broken, thanks to that careless woman the cleaning service sent over..."

"I thought you broke it, Aunt Superbia," Alma murmured, moving her feet even farther under her chair.

"You know perfectly well that it wouldn't have gotten broken if that idiot hadn't moved it two inches away from the center of the end table," the older woman said acidly. "I'm not accustomed to my things being moved out of place." She sipped the tea in front of her, and placed the teacup back into its painted saucer with an audible clink. "Not all of us are as slapdash in our housekeeping as you, Alma," she added with a grim smile. "I suppose you think it's your duty as an artist to keep everything in your apartment in a constant state of chaos, but I don't find that appealing at all."

Her niece, who wrote poetry and had had eight pieces published, smiled wanly. Her apartment was bare to the point of austerity due more to her financial circumstances than anything else, but Aunt Superbia had never forgiven her for not having dinner on the table once when she had unexpectedly dropped in at 5:30 in hopes of being invited to stay, and had decided then and there that the poetry was responsible for her niece's deplorable carelessness in household matters. Seeking to change the subject, Alma asked, "Do you have the list for me?"

"I hope you don't expect me to dig it out of my purse when I haven't even finished my tea," Aunt Superbia replied. "And I hope you don't think I'm a forgetful old woman, either."

"I'm sorry..."

"You should be. What manners! I suppose your mother's to blame; why my brother couldn't see..."

"You must be looking forward to your party," Alma interrupted desperately, having heard all of this before.

Aunt Superbia looked as though she were torn between the desire to reprimand Alma for interrupting and the desire to talk about the party; choosing the latter, she nodded majestically. "It's about time I had one of my gatherings," she purred. Forgetting her objections of a moment before, she thrust her hand deep into a pocket of her expensive handbag and handed Alma a handwritten list covering several wrinkled pages. "That should do nicely," she almost hissed, a strange glitter in her eye.

Alma, whose job it had been for years to type Aunt Superbia's address labels for her party invitations on the grounds that Aunt Superbia couldn't be bothered to learn how to use her own computer for this purpose, glanced over the list, frowning twice. Fearing on the one hand to say anything, but fearing more to be blamed if the invitations weren't properly mailed, she cleared her throat.

"Yes?" said her aunt, leaning forward expectantly.

"It's's just that I don't see Uncle George and Aunt Lisa, or your friend Sara Pineville. Did you want me to..."

"No!" Aunt Superbia cried triumphantly. "They're not being invited. Why George had to marry again at his age, after being a widower for so long...however, I've done my duty. But I won't condone bad manners, and if Lisa expects to be invited to my parties she won't show up, spend the whole evening looking bored, and then yawn...actually yawn!...when I'm talking to her. Everyone was shocked at how rude she was to me. As for Sara, well, if she can't get over her silly habit of trying to be the center of attention at every party I throw..."

Alma sighed inwardly, while appearing to listen placidly to Aunt Superbia's complaints. She knew that if Lisa had been yawning at Aunt Superbia's last party it had been due more to the extreme warmth of the room and the potency of Aunt Superbia's rum punch; and no one would ever have accused gentle, pleasant Sara Pineville of trying to be the center of attention; no one, that is, except Aunt Superbia, who resented anyone talking too long to Mr. Silven, Aunt Superbia's kind next-door neighbor who often helped her with her garden, and who, therefore, Aunt Superbia was inclined to think of as her own property, much as she thought of Alma.

"...will learn, if I have to have three more parties without inviting them!" Aunt Superbia finished, her eyes narrowing.

Keeping her private thoughts that it would be a blessing not to be invited to her aunt's parties very much to herself, Alma nodded. "Shall I deliver the labels a week from Monday?" she asked.

"Goodness, no," snapped her aunt. "That won't give me any time at all to check them for errors before I put them on the envelopes. Thursday afternoon--no, wait, I'm busy Thursday. Friday after you get off from work, then--and don't let them keep you too late; it's very inconvenient for me to have you show up when I'm having dinner. If you can't come before five, don't come until eight," she finished. Getting slowly to her feet, Aunt Superbia gathered her large shopping bag and handbag, and turned to go. "Mind you don't feed the labels in crookedly. I won't put crooked labels on my invitations," she admonished over her shoulder as she sailed out of the door.

Alma watched her leave, and then she sighed, audibly this time. Signaling to the waiter to bring her a tea cup, she poured herself a cup from the pot sitting in front of Alma's place, and helped herself to one of the few cakes left on the little plate to the right of it. If Aunt Superbia was going to stick her with the bill for the tea yet again, she could at least enjoy some of it.

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