(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
The Phantom of the Opera, a musical drama I imagine most of you have heard or seen, depicts several human weaknesses each of us strive to overcome. Emotions of resentment, jealousy, fear and arrogance consume the play’s characters in ways that are both sympathetic and engaging.
The story plumbs the depths of the anguished Phantom’s feelings about his disfigurement, and his jealousy of the Opera company’s directors whom he believes are less talented than he. The musical further explores the theme of jealousy in the character of Carlotta, the soprano star of the opera company who has the title of ‘Prima Donna’. That title is given to the principle singer, usually a female soprano, in any opera company. As the star, she carries the weight of a production. If she has a poor performance, the rest of the cast might be great but the opera still suffers. The audience will be disappointed. If she has a bravura performance, however, the audience will cheer both her and the entire cast.
For many Prima Donnas, such power, responsibility and fame often influences their ego. Opera Prima Donnas begin to demand extra attention and more perks because of their stardom. They know the opera company both depends on their talent – and prospers because of it. That realization of fame is difficult to manage for most people. It causes many people to become consumed with their own grandiosity.
In the Phantom of the Opera, that is exactly how its Prima Donna, Carlotta, acts. She is horrified that, despite a sore throat, she is replaced in an opera by a mere chorus girl named Christine – who goes on to become a star herself. Carlotta believes she is the star and nobody can or should replace her! Her arrogance and condescension toward Christine is one of the show’s dramatic highlights.
Because arrogance became synonymous with Prima Donnas, it soon defined not just an opera star – but any person who is demanding, boastful, and conceited. Someone who acts as if they are the greatest at what they do, who thinks the world should listen to and hang on their every word (kind of like a minister on Sunday mornings!), who expects extravagant attention, wealth and luxury, who believes they are so perfect and great that they are irreplaceable – that kind of person is now referred to as a Prima Donna.
And that definition leads me to the second of my three messages this October on scary Halloween costumes one might wear. My series is also a fanciful way of examining attitudes we can adopt from time to time but which we want to eliminate, as much as possible, from how we act and think.
Last Sunday I looked at the scapegoat as one scary costume. Too many people blame others for their faults and failures. Today, demagogue politicians turn Muslims, immigrants, African-Americans and others into the scapegoats of our time – people to blame for our nation’s economic and social problems. On an individual level, we can make a child, a loved one or a stranger a scapegoat for our personal failures. We can also adopt a perpetual victim mentality that refuses to overcome life challenges. We thereby make ourselves a scapegoat.
Next Sunday, I plan to look at how the hypocrite is perhaps the scariest of all costumes – a person who purposefully does not act as he or she believes – as someone who does not figuratively walk their talk.
But for today, a Prima Donna is someone who is defined by their arrogance. While this can come from winning fame and fortune, most experts believe Prima Donna attitudes are formed at an early age. In some unhealthy homes, parental affection for children is not unconditional. Instead, it is conditional, and based on a child’s successes or failures – how beautiful or handsome he or she is, the grades they get, or their abilities in a sport or artistic endeavor. Children learn that they must compete for parental affection and that any imperfection brings ridicule. Such children learn to manipulate their parents’ perception of them. They tend to brag, exaggerate accomplishments, and paint themselves as the good child. And they later become Prima Donna adults. Dysfunctional parents can shower love on their children who are cocky and boastful – who seem to be successful – and withhold love from quieter or less boastful kids who seem less successful.
Ultimately, psychologists believe Prima Donna attitudes are compensation for insecurity and weakness. Since everyone has flaws, but not everyone is able to identify and admit to them, Prima Donnas use arrogance as a way to mask who they really are.
Psychologists further say that Prima Donna’s often have lots of friends but most of them are superficial friendships. Prima Donnas have very few if any close friends and if they do, the relationship often does not last long. Prima Donnas can be outwardly charming but that is often employed as a way to get something they want.
Prima Donnas are intolerant of people who are different, weak or less than successful. They generally ridicule and tear down those they deem inferior – all as a way to feed their sense of superiority.
Prima Donnas usually dominate conversations. Only they have anything important to say – or so they believe. They often turn a conversation into one about themselves. They are overly talkative and generally poor listeners. They prefer to argue and debate instead of engaging in a mutually affirming conversation.
Prima Donnas have a great sense of humor about flaws in other people, but they are unwilling to laugh at themselves and their own everyday foibles. Any comment they perceive as criticism brings out their insecurities and causes them to lash out in anger.
Finally, Prima Donnas rarely, if ever, admit their mistakes and apologize. To do so would be to confess they are not as smart, successful or great as they believe. As most psychologists say, Prima Donna arrogance is a mask for deep insecurity.
One of the problems with identifying classically Prima Donna behaviors is that it’s often assumed that the opposite of arrogance is a type of humility that is meek, self-effacing, and timid. Many people feel insecure because they too did not receive unconditional parental love. Just like some kids respond to conditional love by becoming arrogant, other kids respond by becoming quiet and fearful. They hesitate to stand out in fear they’ll fail and lose the affection of a parent. These kids become adults who lack the confidence to do anything challenging.
The kind of attitude that we should strive to adopt is one that most psychologists describe as ‘healthy humility.’ It’s also a spiritual path which I believe leads to self awareness and inner peace. To be humble in a way that is healthy is to celebrate one’s unique abilities and characteristics while admitting one’s flaws and areas for growth. This kind of humble person has no need to boast since he or she already recognizes the skills they have. They have learned not to be consumed by what others think of them since they already love and believe in themselves. This person has usually been unconditionally loved by a parent or partner. They feel love not for what they do or don’t do, but simply because they are a child or person worthy of love and respect.
This is why most psychologists say that healthy humility is an attitude muscle we must work to develop. Becoming humble is very similar to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and self-emptying. We must strive to let go of our inner ego – the part of us that desires material pleasure, the part that gets jealous, and that is prone to selfishness. By freeing ourselves of most external, self-oriented desires, we will be more at peace about our abilities. We’ll put in perspective our failures. We’ll feel greater love toward not only ourselves but others too.
It’s an ironic fact but arrogance is rooted in a lack of self-confidence. Humility is rooted, to the contrary, in an abundance of honest self-confidence. Truly humble people have the confidence to know they are special in the same way they believe everyone is special. Logic and self-awareness leads to such humility.
We are each insignificant within an almost limitless universe. We are each only one out of 7 billion humans. And yet we each are also worthy and valuable. In other words, you are nothing and yet you are everything. That dual awareness is a hallmark of healthy humility.
Humble people listen more than they speak because they want to learn from others. Humble people are generous because they have no fear about their needs. Honestly humble people build others up instead of tearing them down – since they have no need to compete. They are already aware of their abilities. People who have healthy humility are unafraid to apologize and admit mistakes since they understand that every person fails some of the time. Love for others leads one to empathize with how one may have been hurtful, and so apology comes naturally to truly humble people.
Once again, its ironic but humble people are strong because they know and admit to their vulnerability. Without fear of being unmasked as weak, they’re not afraid to try new things, accept people with different lifestyles and beliefs, or even of having someone outshine them.
The Dalai Lama wrote in his book, The Art of Happiness at Work, that a truly humble person understands their personal reality. He or she knows that they, like every person, has gifts of ability that define who they are as individuals. One might be artistic, musical, empathetic, witty, funny, gentle, athletic or intelligent – but each has a variety of qualities that not only make them who they are, they make them unique. With that awareness comes peace, self-confidence and, importantly, healthy humility.
Arrogant people have no awareness of their true abilities. They inwardly believe themselves to be weak so they exaggerate their specialness. On the other hand, people who lack self-confidence, who have been beaten down by parents or others who offer only conditional love, they minimize their specialness. Both extremes, arrogance or timid humility, are unbalanced. Neither way is good says the Dalai Lama. It is the middle path, as always, that is best.
The self-aware, mindful and humble person continually examines their truth – the good AND the bad. They neither deny their strengths nor do they boast of them. They neither deny their weaknesses nor are they defeated by them. They simply ARE – a fully complete, true and ultimately empowered person.
I have to be honest with you. I’ve had a difficult week in my role as minister. I was criticized by a few people and that distressed me. I’ve watched with fear the hurricane that headed toward my house in south Florida and I despaired that I was not there to watch over it. I’ve doubted my abilities and my work. In truth, I gave in to the Prima Donna attitude. I was hurt by criticism because I lacked confidence in the skills I do have as a minister. I worried about my house because I still hold onto the false value of material things – and I worried about something so trivial compared to the challenges others face. I doubted myself because I lost sight of what makes me – me.
I still struggle to find the kind of humility that is real – that is not afraid to claim my strengths while seeking growth in areas where I’m weak. I could be wrong, but I don’t think most people would call me a Prima Donna. And yet, in many ways, I am – I just wear that costume on the inside.
I tell you these things not to be boastful about how “confessional” I can be. (It sounds ironic but some people can be arrogant about their humility.) Rather, I tell these things to you because I believe many people, like me, struggle with finding the right balance between being humble and yet still being self-confident. The struggle for us all is how to be authentic and celebrate our reality.
I look out into this room and I see very successful people – individuals who are kind, giving, serving, creative, hard working, intelligent, and strong. And, I also see a room full of challenged people who struggle with insecurity, fear, worldly desires or anger.
But these contrasting truths are what make us each beautiful and special. If we strive to be true, to take off any inner or outer masks we might wear, we’ll find the power to be even greater than we already are. In our self-awareness and honest humility, we’ll be kinder, gentler, more confident and happier. We’ll have no need to wear an arrogant Prima Donna costume. With true humility, we will already be so, so, much better.
And I wish you all much peace and joy.
Instead of a normal talkback time this morning, I’d like us to participate in a talkback to ourselves. You’ll find on the back of your programs three questions that I hope you will now take the time to answer. Write down the first things that pop into your mind as those are usually the most honest – and I encourage you to be honest with yourself. I also encourage you to look only at your sheet and not try to see what a spouse or person sitting next to you has written. These questions and your responses are intended to be about self-awareness – for only you to ponder.
After you finish, please look at what you have written and reflect on how your responses define the special, good and flawed you. Reflect on how you can live each day with awareness of your answers – fully knowing all the ways you are great, and all the ways you want grow.
While Michael plays some soft background music, let us participate in this exercise for just a few minutes.