Way #29: Subtle Traps of Arrogance
Imagine winning the million-dollar lottery. You're overjoyed and ecstatic! Will you go around attributing your new wealth to incredible savvy and intelligence? Of course not. On the other hand, if you invent a product that makes a million dollars, you might start thinking a bit too highly of yourself.
There is a positive feeling that comes with accomplishment – and rightly so. But the 48 Ways says: Whenever you accomplish something, distinguish between "pride" and "pleasure."
Pride means: "I did it. This makes me better than other people."
Pleasure means: "Thank God I was given this opportunity to enjoy and to accomplish. I am not better, just fortunate."
Way #29 is aino maczh'zik tova li'atzmo – literally "not claiming credit for oneself." Take a few moments and think about something you are really proud of. Does it make you feel more grateful – or more arrogant?
Natural Powers, Natural Gifts
Arrogance crops up frequently in the realm of natural abilities. People are often proud of their physical strength, health, and good looks. But that's absurd! Although a person can improve these with exercise and diet, these are essentially gifts of birth. It's practically racist to say that one person is better because he has a perfect nose and finely formed cheekbones!
Yet people often boast about these things. Have you ever been sick with a miserable flu, and a visitor says to you proudly, "I've never been sick a day in my life." If you had the strength, you'd want to strangle him!
And what about intellectual prowess? Should a genius be praised for the good fortune of having a good brain?
The bottom line is that everything we have is a gift from God. Arrogant people have trouble acknowledging this. They don't want to accept that God has helped them, because they feel it will minimize the impact of their accomplishments.
Next time you feel pride in a natural ability, ask yourself, "Did I do anything to earn it?"
Do you have athletic ability? Good memory? Artistic talent? Take pleasure. Not pride.
Pride of Accomplishment
Did you ever have a friend who suddenly became wealthy or professionally prominent, and now barely speaks to you?
It's common to become arrogant about the things we achieve through hard work, because here a person really feels like he "did it."
The way to guard against such pride is to be grateful for the insights you've had, and to the people who've helped you along the way. We could never achieve anything without our parents and teachers, and without those who have blazed a trail before us. It's good to enjoy your accomplishments, but not to the point of thinking that makes you superior to others!
For example, you know how to use a computer. Your grandparents probably never used a computer, even though they're no less intelligent than you. Your computer skills are just a matter of timing. And the next generation will undoubtedly possess technological skills that you'll find equally daunting.
It's all a matter of focus. Next time you feel pride coming on, ask yourself, "Did I control all the circumstances that put me in the right place at the right time to get this fantastic opportunity?"
Beware of Arrogant People
Arrogant people are overbearing. They have little patience for those who don't exhibit the same level of achievement.
Parents who feel accomplished tend to make their children feel inadequate if they don't show the same drive and ability. Many parents, in the name of love, push their children so hard and demand so much that the child ends up feeling like a failure.
On the other hand, parents who feel grateful for their success, will be patient with others – including their own children – who may lack certain abilities.
The 48 Ways says: Pride leads to contempt; gratitude leads to compassion. Arrogance is when you look down on others. Watch out that you don't destroy others in your path to accomplish.
Arrogance about one's goodness is the most dangerous, because it is in the name of "goodness" that many of the world's most evil acts are performed.
Did you ever hear someone say: "I never hurt anyone in my life." That would be a fine accomplishment if it were true. It's hardly likely, though, that he never once insulted his family or friends.
Also there are always higher levels of "goodness" – like fighting for social justice. Don't become proud or arrogant about your good deeds, because there are no limits to how much can be done.
Do religious people think they're better than others? It is true that believing you own the revealed word of God can lead to complacency and arrogance. For that reason, religious people try to work extra hard at being humble.
Arrogance in Society
We are all, in some way, proud of our society, country and culture. Those born in China may be proud Communists. If you were born in Spain, you'd probably be a proud Catholic. And if you grew up in Iran, you may well be a proud Muslim fundamentalist!
Society's influence is so powerful that we often adopt values without even being aware of it. Those values then become less of an "intellectual awareness," and more of an "emotional instinct." For example, Americans might think that anyone who speaks English with a heavy accent is perceived as less intelligent.
Of course, educational level has nothing to do with morality and kindness. At the Wanasee Conference (the Nazi meeting to formulate the "Final Solution" for the extermination of Jews), 9 of the 13 participants were Ph.D.s. These were the most creative, scientific minds in the entire civilized world.
The 48 Ways says it is crucial to evaluate your convictions. Otherwise you're blindly following along as a product of your society.
- Trace the origins of your values.
- Define them.
- Objectively determine whether they are good values.
- Make sure that they are your own.
Obstacle to Wisdom
Pride is one of the biggest obstacles to attaining wisdom. If you're arrogant, it's impossible to learn from others. As the Sages teach, "Who is a wise person? The one who learns from all people" (Talmud – Avot 4:1).
Be grateful to your teachers. It's arrogant to say: "This is simple. I knew it all along." If someone is spending time teaching you, acknowledge his effort – whether or not you think you've learned something.
Realize the damage that pride does. If someone comes along and challenges you on an idea you take pride in, then you feel attacked personally. It sends you into a defensive mode, and you can't hear what's being said anymore. But if a person points out something you're doing wrong, and you take pleasure, not pride, in the idea, then you'll be all ears. "If I got this much pleasure from doing what I thought was right, then how much more pleasure will I gain byactually doing the right thing!"
People make the mistake of thinking they have to trumpet their success in order to feel good about it. But in fact, not taking credit often results in a better feeling, because this way you do good simply because it's good, not for the fame it earns you.
The Medicine That Cures Arrogance
What happens to a big talker when a great person walks in the room? He becomes mysteriously quiet.
The best medicine against arrogance is the realization that God put us on this earth to achieve great things. We all want to be the one to hit the game-winning home run. If you acknowledge this need for greatness, you'll realize that no matter what you have done, you haven't yet begun to fulfill your potential.
For example, if you're involved in real estate, you're proud of the time you bought a property for $10,000 dollars and sold it for $25,000. But if the next guy turns around and sells it for a million, then you realize how much further you still have to grow.
An old proverb says "a fat cat can't run." If you become self-satisfied, then you are not likely to progress to greater accomplishments. You become complacent and stuck at that level forever.
Every time you feel yourself getting too proud, remind yourself what true greatness is, and how far you are from achieving your full potential. This will knock you back down to Earth. Then stop to take pleasure in how far you have come. This will balance you out again!
Why is "Avoiding Arrogance" a Way to Wisdom?
- If you're busy patting yourself on the back for what you've achieved, you won't make an effort to do more.
- If you're constantly defending your opinions, you'll never be open to hearing new ideas.
- If you are arrogant about your ideas, then you are limiting yourself.
- If you're grateful, you will grow.
- If you experience pleasure in doing the right thing, then look for more pleasure.