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I don’t know if many of you stay up late on Saturdays to watch Saturday Night Live. Since that is a work night for me, I don’t watch it as often as I would like. For me, it was a coming of age show that I regularly watched in my teens when John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd starred. Over the years, it has produced some wonderful cultural and political satire.
One particular episode which I remember from almost twenty years ago had Jon Lovitz play the devil. The setting is a People’s Court courtroom and Satan has been sued by a bubble headed, eighteen year old hairdresser. He must defend himself in a lawsuit where he is accused of failing to fulfill a contract to make her a successful hair stylist in return for her immortal soul. The devil protests that he did make her a success – he made her so skilled that after one styling, a person’s hair would be perfect and remain that way forever. Repeat business was not needed and her business failed. Even with that evidence, Satan loses the trial and must return the stylist’s soul.
What was hilarious to me was that Jon Lovitz’s Satan was an overweight “schlub.” Dressed in way too tight red leotards and a ridiculous cape, this Satan was far more comical than scary. The all powerful Prince of Darkness must defend himself – in of all places – a People’s Court and then he loses to a valley girl! He tries to intimidate the judge but is shouted down. And, after the trial he is forcibly pulled away from the microphone as he comically, but pathetically, begs viewers to worship him.
During this abbreviated October series on scary Halloween things, what I find fascinating about Satan is not whether most people believe in him or not, but the ridiculous and puffed up vanity he represents in our lives. As many of you know, the Biblical story says Satan was once an angel who resided in heaven. In that allegorical tale, Satan was a beautiful cherub whose heart became proud because of his splendor. He sought to be equal with God, to have his own throne in heaven and rule as an equal to the Divine. As Satan strutted around like some petty but arrogant dictator, God cast him out of heaven.
The Garden of Eden story describes Satan as a snake and he is traditionally depicted in religious art as a slimy, sinister reptile. But the Bible later describes the satanic serpent as an animal of great beauty, with skin that shone like diamonds and rubies. Indeed, it is this image of Satan that rings most true according to the purposes of the myth. How could a frightening snake seduce Eve? It was Satan’s shining beauty – and his pushy, arrogant attitude – that swayed Eve to disregard God’s instructions. Satan’s beauty explains why he was banished from heaven in the myth story. He became proud, full of himself and thus thought himself equal to the creator of the universe.
This mix of Satan images – the beautiful serpent and that of an impotent fat guy in red leotards, seems appropriate! The story of Satan as the author of evil still has power in our imaginations but that evil ultimately is weak, silly and foolish – pride is just like an arrogant but overweight devil thinking himself better than he is.
Religious myth describes Satan as the father of pride. And, for most people, arrogance and the worship of self is the foundation of all wrongdoing. It is that aspect of the Satan myth that I find compelling – and appropriate for study. What is it about pride that motivates human misdeeds? Why is it often seen as the foundational sin – the scary Halloween thing – we must fight in ourselves and in our world? Why is it that we put on a ridiculous costume of pride and puff ourselves up with vanity and self-importance?
You have heard me say many times that I believe life is not about the self. For us as individuals to have any meaning and any lasting legacy, we do not exist to simply suck up precious resources for personal well-being. Life is about adding value to the world and creating those small echoes or ripples in time that spread out to touch countless people far into the future. Whether or not there is an afterlife, I know for sure that we will live forever in the way we selflessly impact our families, friends, and world for the better. Fighting pride – that ridiculous worship of the self – is therefore crucial to our own immortality.
Reinhold Niehbuhr, the famed philosopher and theologian of the twentieth century, said that humanity is afflicted with a preoccupation of the self. He wrote that people are overly concerned with the “Me” – its nuances, vagaries, intimate details and pleasures. Where is the concern for the other – not just in grand gestures we perform – but in everyday living, in deeply listening to another, in small acts of kindness, in empathy for the concerns, needs and opinions of others? Pride manifests itself in most people in often very petty ways. Instead of working to promote great good in the universe, we dwell on the mundane and ordinary concerns of the self.
In almost all world religions, pride is a primary vice. It is a form of “Me” idolatry that denies reality in the self and in others. In study after study, individuals are proven mostly incapable of seeing themselves as they truly are. When asked, most people believe themselves to be good persons living in a world where everyone else is bad. One survey found that 94 per cent of all college faculty members believe themselves to be superior to their colleagues. Another study by the Harvard Business School found a correlation of near zero between how most employees self evaluate their work performance and the actual reality, as measured by many others. Self evaluations are worthless, the study concluded, since most employees over-inflate their performance. An additional study found that American educational efforts to boost student self-esteem through higher grades and excessive praise had the opposite affect in terms of increasing a love of learning. Cultures that offer minimal praise to students produce graduates with far greater passion and ability to study.
We are too in love with ourselves and it shows. We are often ridiculously self-important. The small annoying behavior in another person is an affront to our personal need for comfort. The opinions of others are diminished because we believe that only ourselves, and those who think and act like we do, are right. When engaged in conversation, we often hear the words of another but make no effort to understand or empathize. And too often, under the guise of sharing, we quickly switch conversations to stories about the “Me”, when our focus should remain on the other.
Many churches are also cults of the self and its needs. How many congregations indulge in satisfying their needs – building immense but comical structures seemingly to honor the divine but which are really playgrounds for the senses? People in church want to be entertained and served instead of challenged and asked to help. Money given is seen as purchasing a service instead of as a gift to help others.
The Gathering is not perfect but I believe we at least try to make this place NOT about us. Indeed, what we spend on ourselves is hopefully more about the other – how we can grow as individuals so that we can then help those in need. Our focus will continue to be outward – to those seated next to us, to guests and visitors, to those in the community outside these doors. But like all others, we too must watch out for pride in our midst.
It is wonderful to think about all the money we have raised for homeless kids or the regular acts of outreach we perform. Even in our charity, though, we can always do more. Our desire to grow and expand must be rooted in that thinking – bigger will never be better if we are not using extra resources to further expand our purpose and our outreach. I confess I needed to be reminded of that by one wise person in our congregation. Even in our humility and our simple church location, we can fall victim to silly pride. Let us not think ourselves morally superior to any other church or group. We are just as broken and fallen and wonderfully lovable as any other.
And all of that brings us back to the individual and to ourselves. If pride, arrogance and an over indulgence of the self is the disease, what is the cause? According to Saint Augustine and common Christian theology, pride is a phenomenon unique to humanity. We are born as heirs of original sin – the Satan influenced disobedience by Adam and Eve. But humanist psychology, beginning in the late nineteenth century, sees human misdeeds and pride as overcompensation for the chubby “schlub” in us all. Indeed, some modern psychoanalysts see all forms of selfishness and arrogance as false fronts for an undervalued self. The bully is really one who lacks self-confidence. The over-overachiever and workaholic lack self-worth. The narcissist lacks self-love. People who are depressed, addicted or angry lack self-esteem. Any human neurosis, this theory goes, is an overcompensation for the real problem of self-doubt. In our pretensions to be greater than we are, we wind up looking utterly foolish.
Fyodr Dostoyevsky, the famed Russian novelist, claimed that selfish humanity is not only often incapable of loving others, we are incapable of truly loving ourselves. Dale Carnegie added, “When dealing with people, we must remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bustling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.” When looking at many figures of history consumed with often evil pride, we are struck by how silly they were – the Emperor Napolean suffering from little man syndrome, Adolf Hitler pained by his inadequacies but goose stepping around with a funny mustache, the macho swagger of American cowboys many of whom were gay. But how do we eliminate this worst of all human ailments – selfish pride? We must aspire to live according to the spiritual value of humility.
I find myself daily fighting that scary Halloween thing within me – that of wearing tight red leotards of devilish pride. Why do I seem more concerned about myself and the little conveniences of life than I do for the needs of others? Why am I so concerned about what others think of me and my actions? Why do I feel such a strong need to be loved and accepted? The most frightening thing for me is to feel unloved. I often act and speak in order to win the favor of others instead of liking me as me and being at peace with that. I find that I question my motives – am I loving and compassionate for the mere goodness of those actions, or do I really seek the favor of others to feed my silly ego?
Even in my attempts to act and remain humble, I find myself feeling superior. I tell myself, falsely, that others are more arrogant than me! I fall into the same trap that I mentioned earlier – people humorously see themselves as better than the rest of the world. Jesus said it best. Instead of figuratively pointing out the speck in another person’s eye, pull the log out of your own!
And false humility has its own seduction. Pride in one’s legitimate skills, achievements and actions is good. Jane Austen noted that one can be proud without being arrogant. Appropriate pride relates to one’s honest opinion of the self. Vanity is focused on what we want others to think of us.
A solution to this satanic but comical tendency within us is difficult to practice. We must be ruthlessly honest with ourselves. We must be willing to note the failures and weaknesses in us – the first of which is a tendency toward pride. Just as important, however, we must be willing to confidently state the successes and abilities that we do have. Friends who are willing to lovingly laugh at us are invaluable. A true friend is one who loves us for our beauty AND our foolishness. He or she is willing to tell us who we really are. Are you courageous enough to ask for and accept such wisdom about yourself? Am I? Our goal must be to stand nakedly authentic in front of ourselves and others – as comical as that image might be! Indeed, purging ourselves of pride involves stripping away the outer falsehoods we hide behind and allowing the true self to shine.
Whatever the cause of pride, whether it be from our human nature or whether it comes from a lack of self-esteem, the outward actions of self focused thinking are really very funny. But they have the power to hurt as well. Whenever possible, we must stop and think before we act or speak. Are you helping someone else….or filling your own petty needs? Are you empathetic to the feelings of a family member or friend or are you daydreaming about yourself? Are you really listening to another – hearing the hurt, pain or joy lying just beneath their words? Are you willing to honestly consider the opinions and differences of others – or do you strut around thinking only you are right? How do we practice genuine humility – recognizing our shortcomings and our strengths?
Just as we see with the humorous depiction of a less than scary Satan, the real devil within us is often quite ordinary and comical. We turn purple and shake our fist at someone who cuts us off in traffic. We dismiss the opinions of others. We act entitled, self-important, or childishly hurt instead of being generous, humble and forgiving. We act contrary to what ALL of the better angels tell us. But, they too inhabit our souls and they too yearn for power in our lives. Those angels are the ones who sing with beauty, who champion our better instincts, who love unconditionally, serve selflessly, forgive without question, and who touch with their soft wings the lives of family, friend and stranger – long after we are gone. Let’s take off the silly devil costume of pride that we wear. We are so much more beautiful – and humble – without it!