“I wanna have pride like my mother has / and not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.” – The Avett Brothers, “The Perfect Space”
This song came to mind when I recently had a conversation with a close friend. Somehow I’d never really thought about it before, this idea of different kinds of pride. This is not an original idea, of course, and the fact that the word “pride” encompasses various meanings is easily understood in an idiomatic way. We use the word a lot in our world. It’s not a particularly special word, nor is it reserved for special occasions or notably worthy events. Parents speak of how proud their children make them. Professional coaches tell interviewers how proud they are of the effort their players put forth. I tell my students to take pride in the work they turn in. In these contexts, pride is a positive force. It’s a source of motivation, of accountability, and of fulfillment. The existence of pride necessarily means a job well done, or mission accomplished, or hopes fulfilled. These are good things.
But there’s another side of pride. This is the pride referenced in the song above. It’s born from stubbornness and narcissism. It puts supreme value in individual effort and achievement, necessitating a refusal to accept help. If someone helps us accomplish something, then we can’t really take credit for it. Assistance eliminates achievement, at least to a certain extent. This is the pride that, in my opinion, only ends up hurting us. To put it in the non-eloquent terms of the Avett Brothers, this is the pride that “turns you bad.” I can type this and clearly recognize the negativity, but I’ve just recently realized that this pride holds a rather prevalent position in my life. This happens in a variety of ways on a daily basis for me. A few simple examples:
Occasionally, while I’m sitting in my office, a colleague will offer to buy me a coffee or soda since he or she is on the way to grab one. My immediate reaction: “No, thanks.” Regardless of whether I want a soda or not, I’ll always decline. Sometimes I will even immediately go buy my own (after my colleague is out of sight, of course). Other times, I might be at lunch with someone, maybe a colleague or a friend, and he or she will offer to pay. My reaction: “Wait–no. You’re not paying for me. Seriously. I got it. Actually, I’ll pay for yours,” which results in the other person having the same reaction as me, eventually leading to either a) one person paying for the entire check, leaving the other person inwardly planning how he or she can return the favor, or b) each person paying individually. Final example: I might be at the grocery store on a Monday afternoon (which means a full load of groceries for me). After filling my cart and going through line, I answer the same three questions with the following three answers: “Yes, plastic is fine”; “No, I don’t have a rewards number”; and “No thanks, I think I can handle it.” The last answer is, of course, in response to the young high school employee’s offer to help me get my groceries to my car. Regardless of how much I’ve bought, I always say no. Even when I’ve gotten a full two-gallon jug of milk, the oblong and problematic-to-fit-in-a-grocery-bag frozen pizza, and the 12-pack of Diet Coke. Even if it’s pouring rain outside and the attendant is holding an umbrella. Even if I know that my fingers are going to be sore the rest of the week from the strain of the taut plastic bags. Doesn’t matter, because the answer is always the same: “No thanks, I think I can handle it.”
Why are these my immediate reactions? Why not let someone buy me a soda, or treat me to lunch, or help me carry my groceries to my car? All of these are good things that would make my life better. And yet, for some reason, my inclination is to resist and to deny. Letting someone help me means that I need that help; it’s an admittance of a personal lack. By denying this help, I can continue to foster some sense of inherent pride in self, in a very Ralph Waldo Emerson type of way [see his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance”].
But I think that there’s an inherent problem in this type of pride. Sure, there’s really not much at stake in my decision to pass on a free soda or meal, and a sudden worldwide trauma doesn’t rest on my decision to carry or not carry my own groceries to my car. But the fundamental individuality of each of these decisions perpetuates a view of the world–and concurrently a view of myself–that isn’t healthy. This idea of autonomy being towards the top of my value hierarchy seems to be a denial of the blatant truths that my life would be nothing without other people. The idea of accomplishing anything on my own is simply ludicrous. To reference a horribly cliche American ideal: before I was able to pull myself by my own bootstraps, someone put those boots on my feet (so to speak). But redefining the American Dream isn’t my agenda; I have a more personal bone to pick with pride.
Not surprisingly, the phone conversation that inspired this post was one concerning money. It was a discussion about hypothetical amounts of money being given by one party and received by another, and the hypothetical problems this exchange might create. If a person accepts a substantial amount of money to, say, buy a new car, or pay off student loans, or afford high-quality child care, then how can that person feel any sense of ownership or pride in those items? How can someone talk proudly of her new purchase if inside her heart she knows that that purchase wouldn’t have been possible without help from someone else? How can I be self-reliant if so much of what I have is a direct result of things that other people did?
Buying cars, paying loans, and caring for children are clearly more exigent matters than lunches and the transportation of groceries. But questioning ourselves for accepting substantial help is fundamentally similar to my choice to deny simple favors. And just like my fingers would profit from letting the young high school kid carry my overloaded grocery bags to my car, so too will our lives benefit from accepting whatever types of assistance people around us might offer. And if it will make our lives better, then why not accept it?
I’m aware that I’m walking some thin lines here. I’m not making a full-scale call for accepting any and all things that create ease. I’m not endorsing shortcuts, nor am I endorsing some sort of overt solicitation of favors or gifts. I’m not saying that I should sit in my office and hope for someone to offer me a Diet Coke, just like I shouldn’t count on someone magically offering to cover my down payment on a house. There is a sense of personal pride in utilizing individual skills and talents to accomplish goals in life. This type of pride is fruitful; it is something for which we should strive. And that feeling of accomplishment that I get when I frantically release the grocery bags from my throbbing fingers into my trunk is one small example of this. But the point at which this pride constrains us from allowing ourselves to experience forms of happiness, joy, or even small comforts that–in my opinion–are equally worthwhile to feelings of individual achievement is a point deserving of purposeful consideration of the following question: what is the value of pride?
Whenever we say we want to have a life we are proud of, what does that really mean? Does that mean a life in which we can point to the things we own, the awards we’ve received, or the money we’ve saved and draw graphs of causation leading directly back to our own efforts? This can’t be the case, because any attempt at drawing those lines will always necessarily point us to places where other people played a part. Perhaps having a life we can be proud of can instead mean a life in which we have the humility to accept help when others offer it, and offer help in return when others need it. Perhaps we can take pride in the fact that we recognize the limits of our self[s] and embrace the immense blessing it is to have these avenues of assistance, leading us to strive to furnish this assistance to others. Perhaps the value of pride really depends on the nature to which we understand how much of our lives are actually reflections of the various people that had a hand in them. In essence, a life that I can be proud of is actually a life of pride in others.
Although there are exceptions, most human beings take joy in helping others. Creating positivity in someone else’s life is a unique opportunity afforded us as human beings, and I believe that there are meaningful rewards for all parties involved. And grasping at this opportunity is something that so many people do on a daily basis. Yet I seem to be denying them this option every chance I get, and it’s all because of some far-fetched notion that I’m not really doing anything unless I’m doing it on my own. In my life, pride seems to be something that disconnects me from others. It puts up a wall, displaying a sign that reads, “Help not needed.” The wall is rather poorly built; it’s crudely painted and squeaky at the hinges. And although there are plenty of people on the other side seemingly begging to help out, I’m too focused on making sure that they know that this wall–this rickety, wobbly thing–is my own doing. And that’s worth something to me. But, really, how much is that worth?
From now on, I’m going to let that kid carry my groceries to my car.