When my husband and I got married, one of the wedding gifts we received was a sampler stitched by a dear cousin of mine. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem entitled “Success.” It has hung in each of the three homes we have lived in over the past 35 years, a steady reminder of what to strive for.
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty,
To find the best in others,
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child,
A garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.
I like this poem because it calls me to root myself in humble successes and provides simple, easily measurable ways to note my daily progress.
Back when I was in college, the school’s motto was “The Challenge to Excel” and most of the students took this philosophy of constant striving to heart, I loved my college years and love even more dearly the friends I made there, but once I graduated, it felt much harder to define my life in light of this motto. I remember the inadequacy I felt as a young alum, when I would open the alumnae magazine that arrived quarterly and read the class notes of highly successful women who seemed to do it all and have it all, all at the same time. I didn’t submit anything to my class scribe because there wasn’t anything I felt proud enough to share. I thought I should be doing something grand to make the world a better place and I was failing miserably.
Pride, judgment and shame form a pretty tight triangle, with judgment at the top. We are constantly in a state of judging and being judged. Our response to being judged often leads to either pride or embarrassment. Pride ALWAYS involves the rule of comparison. I got a better grade in that course than everyone else did. Or conversely, I got passed over for the promotion and my department rival was made VP. Or we engage in self-comparison, pushing ourselves past our personal bests, seeking to accomplish more than we did yesterday and proud when we reach our goals. We are chasing after the E R – those two letters we want to hitch to the end of adjectives about ourselves because without them, we aren’t quite good enough yet. We must be smarter, nicer, funnier, faster, thinner, wealthier, wiser. More — “fill in the blank” with any attribute you highly value.
Pride, in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is listed as both “inordinate self esteem” and “reasonable or justifiable self-respect.” It’s easy to spot and ultimately dismiss the arrogant, disdainful and conceited among us, and fortunately, I don’t come across too many of those obnoxious types on a regular basis. I think most of us fall prey to the traps that pride sets for us in our “reasonable or justifiable self respect.” We take pride in the fruits of our hard work, especially providing for our families – a comfortable home, a good education for our children. In reality, these things are usually the result of our simple good fortune. As novelist Ann Patchett writes in These Precious Days, “The trouble with good fortune is that people tend to equate it with personal goodness, so that if things are going well for us and less well for others, we think they must have done something to have brought it on themselves. We speak of ourselves as being blessed, but what can that mean except that others are not blessed, and that God has picked out a few of us to love more?” It’s a ridiculous notion, right? God’s vocabulary for us doesn’t include comparatives or superlatives. As beloved children of God, aren’t we all on equal footing in God’s eyes? So what good then is comparison? What role must pride play?
Perhaps, instead of taking pride in a job well done, or our son’s acceptance into Harvard, or our prowess on the golf course, or our exceptional organizational skills, we transform that pride into gratitude. It is all gift. Gratitude is the road that leads straight to humility’s doorstep.
Today’s first reading and the Gospel provide very strong directives about humility, and in warning us of the perils of pride, the readings urge us, in effect, to desire less for ourselves. Like the camel carrying heavy packs that cannot pass through the eye of the needle, we burden ourselves with desires and pride for things we can lay no claim to. We need to shed our proverbial packs, allow our earthly desires to die away, and instead, fill the toeholds where foolish pride flourishes with humble gratitude. It can be tough to let go of our “reasonable and justifiable” pride but it is one more way to die to self. Living, after all, is a dying art.