Sunday, November 11, 2012

Get Full of Yourself

My mom was always concerned that I not become prideful, puffed-up or haughty. Growing up, she was vigilant in her pursuit of my humility. She'd explain the merits and importance of being humble. She'd point out situations in which I'd come precariously close to stumbling into pride. 

Whenever she assessed that her explanations were not yielding strong enough results, Mom would try the "or else" approach, e.g., "you'd better not become too prideful, or else no one will like you."

Some or-elses worked better than others. Since I wasn't exactly a friend magnet, the "no-friends" or-else had zippo impact. 

When it seemed that nothing was working on me, Mom would switch to more dire or-elses, e.g., eternal damnation and hell. She might say something like, "You know what the Bible says! 'Pride goeth before a fall.'"

I'd respond, "I believe you're referencing Proverbs 16:18 and it's 'Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.'"

A look of consternation would wash over her face as she tried to maintain course while struggling with her pride in my knowing and being able to accurately quote the reference. Her pride would win out and she'd forget whatever it was that had spurned her intervention. She'd pat me on the head, tell me that I was a good boy, and life would move on.

Despite their apparent ineffectiveness, my mom's words stuck with me. Moreover, they took deep hold as I struggled with the hellish implications of pride and haughtiness. Were I to encounter opposition to a new idea, even though every fiber of my being screamed, "Go for it! They're all wrong. You CAN do it", I'd hear my mom reminding me of the consequences of a prideful and haughty spirit and I'd back down. I'd find myself in limbo, the purgatory that exists between not trusting yourself while also not trusting others.

Uncle Screwtape
At nineteen I read C. S. Lewis', The Screwtape Letters and things started to make sense. In Screwtape, Lewis presents correspondences between a junior devil, Wormwood, and his mentor, Screwtape. Screwtape provides sage advice on how to ensnare a soul.  In one letter of instruction, Screwtape explains the nature of pride and humility. In particular, he points out: "You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character."

On my first reading of the book, I must have spent twenty minutes on just that sentence. Had I got it all backwards? I'd thought for sure that humility was all about knowing one's place and never thinking much of one's abilities. 

Lewis went on to explain (via Screwtape), "The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things."

OK, I'd definitely got it backwards. I came to the conclusion that humility as self-deception (convincing yourself that whatever you do isn't all that) doesn't really serve anyone and that, in many cases, it's counter-productive; denying yourself tends to lead to denying others. On the other hand, celebrating all you do makes it easier to celebrate all that others do. There's no envy of others because there's plenty of celebrating to go around.

Basically, the traditional model of humility is a zero-sum game; to praise one person is to denigrate another. However, if humility is simply a process of celebrating accomplishment regardless of who attained it, then there's no cost to it; there's plenty to go around. The key was to become full of yourself, so full that you overflowed to others.

So I did. After improvising a really sweet line on my tenor sax, I'd tell myself, "Wow, that was sweet!"

If the next player improvised something even better, I'd say, "Wow, that was really sweet!", and then I'd see if I could do even better the next time. By being satisfied and celebrating anything I did, there was no need to bring down anyone else, no need top build myself up. It was what it was, and it was worth celebrating.

All this may seem backwards and I'm pretty sure that, if you were to do it artificially (i.e., pretend), it wouldn't have the same effect. However, if you start to think about what you do as really great, you'll get over yourself way faster than if you try not to.

So, how about we make today, Get Full of Yourself Monday? Go out there and be so happy with yourself that it overflows onto anyone you encounter.

Happy Monday,
Teflon

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