Pride–If You’re Writing About Humility, You Might As Well Take On Its Opposite

Fault #6:  Pride.

This one is interesting.  Because I have a lot of pride, but some of it is about dignity, and holding onto myself under pressure, and the refusal to back down when I truly believe in something.  Pride can be about refusing to be victimized or humiliated.  It can be self-respect.  I have a commitment to act in ways that are congruent with my values, and I can be intransigent about that, and yes, proud.

There’s the danger of rigidity, of absolutism, and I am an ex-Catholic, so seeing the world in moral absolutes pretty much comes with the territory.  But I also am so curious, interested in different ways of seeing things.  Just don’t try to get me to condone, enable, or support prejudice, cruelty, violence, dishonesty, etc.

The other side of pride is the unwillingness to ask for help, to admit to your weaknesses, to admit you don’t know, don’t know how, are just as confused as everyone else.  A person suffering from this kind of pride might, you know, benefit from writing about her faults for seven f&*^ing days in a row.  It might soften her very stiff spine, the walls in front of her very tender heart.

Not that I’m speaking of anyone in particular.

When I was 17, I had this incredible experience.  I had been fighting with my parents, with whom I distinctly did not get along, and who weren’t exactly treating me very well.  I’d been a rebel in high school, but then I thought that skipping school and failing French and Biology was hurting my future and giving my parents way too much to blame me for, so I promoted myself to the college level classes and started making honors.  I was still an outspoken atheist in an all girls Catholic school, but I was now a successful atheist, which does, believe me, make a difference.  My parents kicked me out of the house twice that year, and both times the disciplinarian of my high school took me in.  The second time, she just had me stay until school ended.  The nuns knew I was an atheist (I mean, come on, this is me, EVERYONE knew I was an atheist), but they were all excited about mothering me through my graduation.  The disciplinarian came to my convent room with a pair of white gloves for me to wear at my baccalaureate mass.  There was so much love in her face.  And I said, “Sister, I’m not going to the mass.  I’m an atheist.  I don’t do mass.”

I was 17, and I felt my integrity was at stake, and I still feel, now, that to go would have been to do violence to my sense of self.  There was pride in my answer though, because of course I couldn’t tell her that in spite of my overwhelming and painful gratitude, accepting her help cut through me, because I wanted to take care of myself and not need anyone.  I couldn’t tell her how painful it was for me that the nuns had a glimpse of the trouble I’d been struggling with all during the four years they’d known me.  I hated being vulnerable.  Promoting myself to the highest level classes in school and then excelling–that showed strength, and strength was what I wanted to show.  Vulnerability, at that point in my life, had gotten me exactly nowhere.

This kind of pride keeps people at a remove.  It is, in a way, dishonest.  I mean, we are all vulnerable, we all need help, we are all, at times, needy, scared, confused, young.

But oh, to drop the wall of pride and stand in your unclothed humanity, willing to be seen, known, to risk rejection, judgment…pride is easier.

If perfectionism is the ultimate expression of shame, then perhaps pride is the ultimate expression of fear.

What does it mean to be truly brave?  I can tell you that running with the bulls, or tubing down the Gila River in flood season, or free-climbing in the Alps or skydiving aren’t really about being brave.  Standing up for someone, yes, but even more than that, bravery is being still in the moment in which you connect, in your utter vulnerability, with one other human being.  To tolerate the nakedness, to hold onto your sense of worth, to risk not being welcomed or sheltered or loved…that is bravery.

I wonder if the couples therapist knows this.  I wonder if the DSM IV has a catagory for  that includes the ability to be vulnerable with whatever you have inside you.

I have too much pride for pathology or diagnoses, because I can tell you right now, they are judgments, dehumanizing, allowing the practitioner to pretend that she doesn’t have the same struggles as her clients.

I love the moments when we come to each other, and something pure happens, something beyond the daily detritus of living.  I teach an acting technique that fosters this in the realm of creativity, and it makes me so happy when people find that moment, when they forget where they are and just stand in connection.

I will give up my pride for this, but not all at once.

Because contrary to even my own opinion, I am not completely and totally INSANE.  I mean, this world isn’t so safe that you want to walk around all the time that naked.

Give me my sword and my pen.  Give me the Light itself.  Give me love, that I may know how to live.

Lovingkindness for you, especially if you are reading this on Labor Day Weekend.

3 More Humility Posts to Go and I AM COUNTING!

Fault #5:  Impatience, otherwise known as intellectual arrogance.

In other words, I think I’m smarter than everyone else.

You know, the problem with blogging about your faults, is eventually you run into one you really don’t want to talk about.

I could say that I think I’m “righter” than everyone else, which, in other words, means I believe my version of reality is the correct one.  Buddhism again–all our constructs of reality are fantasies, dreams, narratives, stories.  None of us are right.  But, in being wrong, some of us are more accurate than others, and I would be one of the more accurate ones.  At least, that’s what I tell myself, all the evidence (being persecuted by construction, having relationship with chairs and refrigerators moving, being reactive with a tendency to personalize) DEFINITELY withstanding.

Although I must say that I’m enough in reality to know that outside of my tendency to be hurt by pretty much everything other human beings say and do, I can be fairly accurate in my assessments of how insane other people are and in what ways.  In other words, I am perceptive.  I’m actually perceptually and conceptually gifted, which means that in those two areas I often operate…differently, I would say, if I’m not being intellectually arrogant.  If I am being intellectually arrogant, I would say that I operate at light speed, and I can understand sophisticated and multilayered levels of meaning and their implications pretty much effortlessly.  Here’s the arrogance:  faster than pretty much everyone I know except like two of my friends and I feel weird when I’m around them, because it’s clear I’m not the smartest person in the room and that just freaks me out.

But with most people…well, this week the f*&^ing couples therapist started explaining the way nervous systems react to stimuli and she got four words in and I could have completed the paragraph.  Part of it was that I’m quite educated about things like this, and part of it is that I’m just fast.  I was fidgeting like anything while she went on about something I’d already figured out.

My German mother didn’t love the fact that I was gifted.  Gifted children are a pain in the butt, and she had two of them.  We both required lots of stimuli, we were both curious about everything, learned everything really quickly, got bored just as quickly, asked tons of questions about things we weren’t supposed to know about or observe.  I am very grateful for my gifted brother, and for the bond I had with him, which kept me from feeling like I was the only alien on the planet.  Because gifted children are also lonely.  I remember feeling like I had these huge eyes and this huge head and my body and heart couldn’t keep up and I wanted someone to explain why the world was so crazy, and why adults didn’t know what they were doing, and why everyone was so angry all the time.  Adults always seemed so angry, so afraid of losing their power, so insecure.  Parents, teachers, neighbors…it was like life scared everyone.

Of course, it does.

My brother and I were bored out of our minds in school.  I read adult novels under my desk all during grade school.  He stayed up all night and went to school with his hair standing on end, and slept when he could.  By high school, I was causing trouble whenever I was bored (which was always, as they’d mis-tracked me and I learned the class lesson in the first 5-10 minutes).  My brother just refused to go.  But because being smart–being weird smart–attracted the wrong kind of attention, I hid my real vocabulary under swearing and he became obsessed with contemporary music.  In other words, we learned to be cool.

Intellectual arrogance is a great cover for feeling you don’t fit in, you never will, and if you are a freak, and somehow not okay, at least you’re smart.  If, for example, you were bullied all during grade school for being a freak, really bullied, attacked daily, at least you knew you were smarter than the kids who terrorized and terrified you for six years of utter and complete hell.

Metta, always metta, for how we come to be who we are.

Of course, intellectual arrogance also plays nicely into being Ms. Fix-It, because since I am a light-speed processor, and still, on some level, a bored gifted kid, I’m like, Jeez, quit taking so long, I’ll just tell you, I’ll just do it, I’ll just fix it.  That’s easier than waiting and suddenly feeling scared and not knowing why. 

Plus, if I feel defensive, rightly or wrongly, I can intellectually fence myself out of pretty much anything except real meanness.   Because intellectual arrogance or no, I’m just not mean.  If you’ve ever really been bullied, it’s hard to be mean to other people.  I can be intimidating and fierce when I’m angry, and I’m definitely not someone to screw with, but I’m never or very rarely truly cruel.  Thank whatever/whoever that does not need to be on this list.

And thank whatever/whoever because intellectual arrogance and cruelty would be a nasty combination.

However, my Achilles heel is that pretty much anyone can out-mean me.  I’m intellectually fencing like crazy and one mean personal comment…well, so much for arrogance then.

But fine, I really, really, really don’t want to be mean.  I could add competitive to my list of faults very easily, and, since this is getting harder and harder to write, may just do so tomorrow as an easy way out, but there are certain contests where you just walk away, saying, sorry, I won’t play.  (And I do love to win.  I mean, I really, really, really love to win.  Even if I feel guilty when I do…ex-Catholic, remember?)

There’s a book by Chaim Potok, and in it there’s a gifted boy named David (my gifted brother’s name, as it happens).  David is so gifted that he can read Tolstoy very early in childhood, and he’s so excited about what his mind can do that he misses all the humanity of the story.  His father sees this, and he decides that in order to keep his son from becoming a monster of intellect, he will cause his son to learn compassion.  So he stops speaking to his son.  He knows that compassion comes through suffering, and he must teach his son this lesson, so he gives his son the silent treatment for something like ten years.

We’d call this child abuse.

However, the character, David, learns compassion.  He softens.  It kills his father to do what he’s doing, by the way, because he loves his son and he is cheating himself of the father-son relationship he really wants to have.

Intellectual arrogance is a defense.  I can joke about it–like when I’m teaching, I’ll say things like, “You’re all brilliant because you agree with me.”  And I am learning humility as I write this, as I see how life, suffering, confusion twist all of us into these shapes, and how the untwisting wrenches the hurt places, makes them rise up, forces us to choose, always, to soften or to harden, to heal or to become bitter.

My intellectual arrogance is mitigated by curiosity, because no matter how much or how often I think I’m right, I just can’t help wanting to know what everyone else has to say (except for the mean people…I have trouble wanting to know what they think).

And there is a counterpoint to arrogance, which is simply a confidence, a willingness to decide, to take a risk, to move out into the world based on trust in one’s own judgment.  I have that, too.

Humility, I have heard again and again, is being right-sized.  I’ll keep the confidence.  And maybe I’ll surrender being a smart girl in the face of too many bullies.  Because my intelligence didn’t protect me.  It made me stand out, but it didn’t give me the answer to cruelty.

The answers to cruelty come from the softening heart, from compassion, relationship, vulnerability, trust.  All the mind can do is recognize this.  Maybe, that’s what it’s for.

PS–Confidence, curiosity, humility (I have earned this one, I mean this is day FIVE).

The Endless Questing for Truth

So writing this blog makes me think.  Not that everything doesn’t make me think.  But specifically, writing this makes me think about religion and spirituality.  (As do the books piled up next to my bed.  Usually those books are young adult fantasy novels, but for the last month it’s been all-Buddhism, all-the-time.)

So, this week I thought about my first communion, because of course that was my first spiritual rite of passage.  (I don’t remember my first confession.  Or I remember vaguely being very nervous and then getting a rote response…which was better than what my brother got.  I think the priest told him he better shape up or he’d go to hell.) (I am refraining from going off about that.)

Anyhow, my first communion was mostly eventful for all the whispered little-girl conversation with Maureen Patton about what the host would taste like.  A lot of anxiety about what it was made of and did it really turn into someone’s body, which would be really gross, and what happened if you couldn’t get yourself to swallow it.  Or if you dropped it!  And then, afterward, “Oh, my God, it tastes like soap!”  “Mine’s stuck to the roof of my mouth!”  We ducked behind the pew in front of us to compare notes and I’m sure some nun was glaring somewhere.  Not to mention our mothers, to whom we were a complete embarrassment… and a disappointment.  We were clearly not headed into religious life.

The next rite of passage was Confirmation.  Mine was notable for two things–I couldn’t get the name I wanted, and my mother’s determined efforts to get me into reality since I believed I would speak in tongues immediately upon being confirmed.  I wanted the name Christian, spelled exactly like that, and was very upset that they kept giving me Kristen.  No gender-bending in Catholic confirmation names, apparently.  I was VERY upset.  Imagine me younger.  Much younger.  With less restraint.  I know, less restraint is hard to imagine, but I have actually learned some in the intervening years.

Then there was the speaking in tongues thing.  Like, how did my mother figure out I had decided I was getting that gift?  I can’t have been stupid enough to tell her.  And I know for sure I didn’t tell her I was hoping for Spanish and French, since I thought those would be cool tongues to get.  Anyhow, she kept telling me it wasn’t going to happen, and the more she told me it wasn’t the more determined I became that it WOULD, and then it turned out the Monsignor who baptized me was coming to our church to do the confirmation, so she also told him.  She didn’t leave anything out.  She told him about my obsession with the name Christian.  He said, “Good for her.  There aren’t too many of those around.”

Needless to say, I didn’t get to speak in tongues, or you’d have heard about it.  I had to go live in Spain for that to happen.  But the day after I was confirmed, I did knock the chalice out of the monsignor’s hands, so he had to catch it and then try to get all the hosts to fall back into it, which was certainly eventful, as communions go.  I didn’t do it on purpose either.

Next rite of passage: reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and becoming an atheist at 17, while still attending Catholic high school.  I had a progressive nun for religion, so I won the religion prize that year.  She said atheists think more deeply about God than unquestioning believers.  But this rite of passage was really IT for me.  I had more mystical experiences once I became an atheist than ever before.  Utter transcendence.  So I won’t go into that in detail here, because I want to talk about NOW.  The ultimate present.  Or, Buddhism again.

Last night I was reading One Breath at a Time, which is a book that marries the ethics of the 12 steps with Buddhist practice.  It’s all excellent, but as I was reading I started to think about my own spirituality.  Not religion, not religious experience, not reading Buddhism.  But what is me.  My spirituality.  And you know, in all the Buddhist reading, I haven’t found my deepest spiritual experience.  I’ve been meditating on and off for over twenty years without reading about Buddhism–meditating was a fringe effort until now.  What I have done is listened.  If you asked me if I prayed, if I meditated, I would say that mostly I just listened.  Of course, it’s not listening in the simple sense of listening to another person.  It’s sensing as well…listening with your body, with your cells, with the life in you.  Listening for the beat of all things, listening for that sense of knowing that calls you into wakefulness.  I haven’t been watching my breath or saying lovingkindness.  I’ve been listening.  I’ve been paying attention to something I can’t see or explain.  If I have to put words on it, I’ll say this–I think there are energy currents that run through all things.  You can’t see them, but you can feel them–whether they are dark or light, whether they are the current that is meant for you.  You can listen for them in other people, or in silence, or in events…there is no place, no time, that they cannot be heard.  My practice has been listening, and waiting to know, and finding the current, and surrendering to it and then having one adventure or another.  It is the best kind of joy.  I’m just learning the next thing to learn and listening.  Or, of course, not listening and making myself miserable, and the fact that I know I’m not listening makes it even worse.

Perhaps Buddhism isn’t mystical enough for listening.  Not that it matters.  Nothing on this earth except my own screwedupness will keep me from listening.

Here is the question I’m listening to right now:  why is it that I started out to write a blog about film and ended up writing about spirituality instead?  It’s not just that I’m being endlessly self-indulgent (which I am).  It’s not just that the film pushes all these questions to the forefront (which it does.)  It’s that the film is only part of what I’m listening for.  I’m listening more for the next change, the next thing, the next call.  I’m stopping when I can, because I want to be sure I really am listening, I am creating time to listen.  The film, not the film, Buddhism, not Buddhism, I want to hear.  Clearly.  It feels so necessary to be clear right here, right now.

Of course, perhaps the thing I am always listening for is me.  Because I do want to hear the life in me, its own peculiar beautiful song.  More than anything, I want that.