Understanding and Overcoming Pride: Context and Perception

The author Ryan Holiday tells the following story about Benjamin Franklin in his book Ego is the Enemy

"At 18, a rather triumphant Benjamin Franklin returned to visit Boston, the city he’d run away from. Full of pride, he had a new suit, a watch and a pocketful of coins that he showed to everyone he ran into. All posturing by a boy who was not much more than an employee in a print shop in Philadelphia.

"In a meeting with Cotton Mather, one of the town’s most respected figures, Franklin quickly illustrated just how ridiculously inflated his young ego had become. As they walked down a hallway, Mather suddenly admonished him, “Stoop! Stoop!” Too caught up in his performance, Franklin walked right into a low ceiling beam.

"Mather’s response was perfect: 'Let this be a caution to you not always to hold your head so high,” he said wryly. “Stoop, young man, stoop—as you go through this world—and you’ll miss many hard thumps.'"

Holiday continues, "The problem with pride is that it blunts the instrument we need to succeed—our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride.” 

What is pride?


Sister Sandra Rogers has said, "Pride creates a hardened crust that doesn’t allow the influence of the Holy Ghost to penetrate our hearts or minds.” 

Emily Brontë writes, “Proud people breed sad sorrows for themselves.” 

And to quote President Ezra Taft Benson from his timeless talk Beware of Pride, “Pride is essentially competitive in nature." 

"Most of us think of pride as self-centeredness, conceit, boastfulness, arrogance, […] All of these are elements of the sin, but the heart, or core, is still missing. The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. Enmity means 'hatred toward, hostility to, or a state of opposition.'” 

Benson also said, “The proud wish God would agree with them. They are not interested in changing their opinions to agree with God's.” 

Naaman’s pride


Naaman was a Syrian captain who was successful at war (Old Testament; 2 Kings 5). He worked for the king of Syria. His issue at the time was that he was a leper. His boss, the king of Syria, heard that a prophet in Samaria could heal Naaman, so the king of Syria said, you go, and I’ll send a letter with you. So Naaman shows up at the king of Israel’s door with a letter of recommendation from the king of Syria. Elisha, the prophet in Israel at the time, hears about it and tells the king of Israel, send him my way. So Naaman goes to Elisha’s house and knocks on the door and Elisha sends a messenger out to tell Naaman to go wash in the river Jordan seven times. Naaman is angry. Don’t I deserve the prophet to come out and do it himself to “strike his hand over the place and recover the leper?” Then Naaman thought, the rivers in Syria are better than any river in Israel. Couldn’t I have washed in them? 

Naaman is used to being a captain who enters another country only because he’s about to conquer it. However, this is a new context for Naaman where he’s coming as a patient, not as a captain. Also, remember that the king of Syria, his boss, went out of his way to ask a favor of the king of Israel. 

This happens in contemporary life all the time: "Naaman" the successful businesswoman or PhD or mother or father feels like a conqueror in his or her domain; "I’ve got this." But then something breaks, something you can’t fix on your own, some sort of health problem, and you sit in a waiting room with everyone else no matter how important you think you are. When the doctor can’t be scheduled, you accept her messenger in the form of a physician’s assistant or nurse. 

Overcoming pride: honesty


The first step in the Church’s addiction recovery program (which is based on Alcoholic Anonymous’ 12 steps) is honesty. The key principle of this step is to “admit that you, of yourself, are powerless to overcome your addictions and that your life has become unmanageable.” Or, as Moses put it, “I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10). 

The truth is, you can’t do anything without Jesus Christ. You’ve fallen into the hole of sin, and if you think you can pull yourself out with your own strength, you’re lying to yourself. 

So, how can you resist being proud without encouraging insecurity or discouragement? When Moses supposes man is nothing, does he mean he’s worthless? 

Fooled by context


It turns out that pride is what can leave us feeling worthless. When we pride ourselves on our achievements or who we are in a certain context, we are susceptible to a gaping hole of insecurity and discouragement when anything goes wrong. Pride is an illusion that fools us with context.

When I’m in Utah with my parents or grandparents and their friends, they’re always saying such nice things to me, like "you’re so smart," "I can’t believe you’re doing this and now that,” and “play the piano for us.” It makes me feel great! 

Then, when I go to a college reunion, I bump into a ton of former classmates and when I ask what they’re up to, they respond with something like “well, I was doing some research on the Galapagos islands for my PhD, then I sold my business for a few billion dollars, which took longer than I expected because my children are all prodigies and so I’m spending more time at home teaching them Japanese. Plus, we’ve been volunteering in soup kitchens, feeding thousands of people.”  

When I was a missionary in some really remote parts of South America, people were blown away by the fact that I attended college. And they were amazed that I had “blonde” hair (if you have medium brown hair in the area where I served, you’ve got lighter hair than anyone else). 

So does that mean when I’m at a college reunion I should perceive myself as a failure, and when I’m in Utah I should sign autographs for all the neighbors? I’m not a different person in one network of people than another, but I could feel totally differently about myself. Should I? Should your self-esteem be determined by the context? Maybe you’re sitting here feeling pretty smart. Maybe you’re sitting here feeling pretty dumb. Maybe you feel like a bad parent or a darn good one. 

Pride makes sure that your context makes you feel the way you feel. Pride is comparative. 

My dad is a lawyer and whenever he gets cocky, I remind him that if there’s some natural disaster or we’re stranded on an island and have to choose who survives, lawyers are going to be the first to go. Haha. It’s all about context. 

From world-famous to ignored


Here’s another story. In 2007, the world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell could easily fill Boston’s Symphony Hall and people would pay $100 for a seat to hear him play. Three days after a performance, he put on some casual clothes and stood in a subway station and played the songs people had payed a lot to hear him play three days before. No one stopped to listen, people rushing past on their commute. He said of the experience, “It was a strange feeling, that people were actually ah… ignoring me.” Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post says, “The awkward times, it’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgement.” 

All of a sudden a simple change of context reminds you that you’re an equal in the world. Not the same as everyone, but an equal. 

The prideful will think: that means everyone else is as important as me.
The discouraged will think I’m finally as important as everyone else. 
The humble will think: isn’t it great that we’re all equals? 

Love yourself

You have to love yourself for who you ARE, not what you have achieved. Pride isn’t the opposite of discouragement and hopelessness and a feeling that you’re a failure. Pride is the cause of all that. It’s like a drug that lifts you up really high, then drops you. If you have success, you think about all the hard work you put in, even over several years. What you forget is all the luck, the help from God, the people who supported you, the country you live in that made it possible, the value of the currency you were using at the time, the lack of natural disasters or health problems that could have stood in your way, the lack of better competition, whatever it was. If you fool yourself into thinking that you are your achievements, failure will bring you down really hard.

But what if you were just YOU? Achievement and failure just part of what you do, and are expected to do? And you see everyone else with their achievements and failures and think, hey friends we’re living life together, full of good and bad stuff, this is life! And we all have worth, no matter which way the waves turn. 

The Relief Society declaration states, “We are beloved spirit daughters of God, and our lives have meaning, purpose, and direction.”

If you have meaning, achievements and failures both provide more meaning. If you have purpose, you know you are an important contributor to your context without comparative value. And if you have direction, you know that the road may wind this way and that, but you know where you’ll end up because you’re following all the right road signs. 

Jesus Christ was the son of a carpenter. At twelve he sat among doctors and discussed the doctrine of the kingdom. And in his thirties, he hung on a cross to be mocked by a sinful people. His worth, his purpose remained the same throughout it all. His life has meaning because he knew all the glory went to God, and the grace needed would be provided. 

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