My undergraduate ancient philosophy professor said to us, “Don’t ever feel satisfied; you’ll become complacent.”
According to him, pride and contentment were antithetical to success; you couldn’t cultivate it as long as you felt them. And, for years, I didn’t allow myself to enter either emotional state. If satisfaction automatically engenders complacency, then how does anyone ever experience joy? During a session, one of my clients asked me how to overcome the despair of all of her problems. She felt like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up the hill for no apparent reason. So, I told her that the first part entailed acceptance, that life will always have problems and looking forward to an idyllic future was a form of magical thinking. If she could accept that no one lives in an ideal state, her overwhelming anxiety would slightly subside.
Then, we arrived at the part where I struggle, too: She wouldn’t allow herself to feel proud of herself. In a hyper-competitive context, pride can lead to death. If we lived in a libertarian state, with a small government, then resting on your laurels would likely mean that you’ll starve at some point. In this respect, black and white thinking and the fear of complacency are aids to survival. And for someone who consistently struggles with death anxiety, pride is at best a distraction and at worst a death sentence. But, what about when we don’t have to hyper-focus on staying alive? What happens then? Imagine a life wherein all you do is attempt to achieve. There’s no joy, no hope, and no real sense of self. I believe that’s what Camus was warning us against; Sisyphus was the archetype of the unconscious human, only living in order to keep doing so.
If you’re religious, then pride is likely a symptom of arrogance, the sole reason for mankind’s fall. If you’re anxious of loss (status and/or livelihood), then pride is a threat. And if you’re an imposter, then pride is the precursor to emotional carnage. Some of us won’t allow ourselves to feel proud because we believe pride contradicts an open-mind. Others, like my professor, believe that pride and apathy are dizygotic twins. And, people like my client fear that pride in themselves is a blinding illusion, like a Sisyphean boulder, which eventually tumbles.
In reality, pride can be all of these (as was the case with my client) or none of them. A famous line from the film Rudy reads: A life without hope isn’t worth living. Well, neither is one without pride. Pride helps us overcome life’s drudgery and unrelenting struggle. Pride motivates us to continue to grow, and reminds us of how far we’ve come. When an athlete wakes up at 4 AM to run while exhausted, that’s pride. When an academic stands in front of an audience to deliver a lecture, that’s pride. And when a mother cares for her colicky baby, that’s also pride. Pride is a force that builds on itself; the more of it you have, the more you want.
Pride doesn’t inherently mean that one is better than another, only that she’s finally slain a metaphorical beast. So, the next time someone tells you that you ought to feel proud, ask yourself: Why won’t I allow myself to seriously consider that comment? Am I afraid? It makes me sad knowing how many people, myself included, prevent themselves from experiencing a pat on the back. How would your life change if you allowed that to happen?