26 August 2007

Virtue on the Bias

My children have a toy horse named Vain Pride. Vain Pride is a beautiful chestnut mare with a white mask and white stockings. She is also an insufferable herd-mate, constantly bragging and worrying about her appearance.

There's another Vain Pride, one who lives in my heart and mind. She thinks I'm precious beyond belief, and it matters desperately to her that I look good. She goads me to excel at all I do, and she spends all of her time in front of a mental mirror replaying my best moments.

There was a time when vanity and pride were considered serious sins. They've fallen by the wayside, along with other classic sins: jealousy, envy, greed, gluttony, anger, lust, and sloth. We think about mistakes and character flaws differently these days. Some sins, vanity and pride among them, have been air-brushed into virtues.

I combat my own vanity with a self-deprecating sense of humor. "It's just me, playing down to expectations. Gee whiz, aren't a funny clown?"

I caught myself at this a couple of weeks ago. Was my self-deprecating humor just another way of looking good, and hence an offering at the altar of my vanity?

I pondered this for days. Then, while driving in traffic in San Francisco (not a good time for epiphanies, in my view. Would you mind awfully, God, holding off on blinding revelations until after I've negotiated this lane change?), I got a nudge.

Maybe my problem really isn't vanity after all. Perhaps I've been practicing humility so long that I've gone too far. Perhaps my real problem is lack of confidence.

Maybe I'm afraid that people will be angry with me.

I remember being confident, sometimes to the point of arrogance. I remember being an assertive person who knew what she wanted.

I've changed myself. I can feel the weight and complexity of the alterations I've made to my thinking, the ways I've tweaked myself to become what I am now. I'm not sure if I went too far or if I used the wrong approach entirely. I wish I knew how to run diagnostics on my own brain to see if it's doing what it ought to do.

The answer is not usually at the extremes, but somewhere in the middle. There's a point where it all balances beautifully. All I need to do is feel my way towards that place at the dead center of my soul, the fulcrum that balances the load of my life.

1 comment:

RichardM said...

All the great spiritual traditions, not just Christianity but Hinduism and Buddhism as well, emphasize that our mind plays tricks on us. We identify a fault like pride and think we have defeated it but it morphs into a different form and then we no longer recognize it. The games that people play in social interaction often just feed the folly. Much casual banter among people takes the form of bragging (my kids are smarter, more athletic, etc. than your kids) but if the bragging is too crude that's not good either. So the real key is to brag more subtly and less directly than other people. So some vices just change their shape while remaining essentially the same.

But sometimes a different dynamic is at work. Sometimes a vice when confronted morphs into a different vice. Suppose pride is what makes me work hard and I recognize the pride and takes steps to eliminate it. Since I have taken pride in my work what might happen is that pride morphs into sloth. The old, bad worldly motive for work being eliminated, I fail to find a right motive and instead just get lazy.

These spiritual wobbles come about because we naturally rely too much on our own will and wisdom. The wisdom of the Quaker path is that it reminds us to just take the time to be quiet and listen. It has faith that listening to God is a kind of natural gyroscope which will naturally smooth out our wobbles and bring us into gospel order if we just stop trying so hard.

Am I making any sense here?