Arrogance: Breaking It Yourself

Arrogance has to be the greatest pain one can inflict on one's self, the biggest obstacle one can put in one's own path, and the most difficult personal failing one can attempt to address. As I sit in the stillness of a summer dawn, birdcalls and intercity bus horns (and the softly playing Ghost Trio) slicing through the dim air, it strikes me as a good thing to write about. A good thing to remind myself of.

All of us aspire to a broader canvas, a better life, a brighter, warmer, safer nest. That is at the core of our evolution, of our survival. The tools to get there are provided by nature - in the form of intellect, reason, physical ability, etc. I will never forget the words of my friend, Joseph, the man who walked on fire by mistake, when I expressed wonder at how he mastered the art of sewing/stitching in a few hours. He said, "God gave me hands, and God gave me a brain. There is nothing that cannot be achieved."

arrogance
Man "dicovered" fire. Man created wikipedia. Image of Discovery liftoff from wiki commons.

This very ability - to overcome challenges and achieve anything, a virtue that we should be grateful for - becomes for most of us, the foundation of false pride and arrogance. We forget that each step we have taken to get where we are today has been possible only through the collusion of a million different factors. Starting from the attachment displayed by my mother (and father) on my birth, to the zillion times I have strayed and tested fate, to the opportunities that have found me - if one reflects on what has gone into making this "me," one can only be amazed at how insignificant our own role has been. I have been coaxed, nudged, rapped on my knuckles over and over by a million different protective forces before I learned even the basic lessons of social behavior. One can only guess at how much input goes into shaping thinking, personality and intelligences.

Strangely, this realization is largely kept hidden from us. This is part of the cosmic April Fool joke. We are given what we perceive as free will, only so that we can sculpt our destruction. We are given just as much choice to build upwards as we are to bring that edifice crashing down. Having been in the "business" of helping people (little time in the conventional "helping" profession and much more time in the "training" profession), I have seen this happen to everyone without exception. The best example, of course, is my self.



In the attempt to comprehend, to overcome, and to free myself from x, y, z, I have always fallen into the trap of arrogance. I call it a trap because the moment I have been able to perceive some upward movement, some liberation, I have instantly identified my self as the core contributor to the breakthrough. It is a wonderful feeling. But what it comes with is a new conflict, a new roadblock, and a new delay in seeing my place in the larger scheme of things. With the little humility at my command as I write this, I can say that this applies to almost everybody I have known closely.

Humility and gratitude, conventionally understood as medicine for arrogance, also come with their dose of the cosmic April Foolery. I can turn these concepts into dry words and con myself to believe that I am humble and grateful. I can pepper my social media updates and my body language with the perfect blend of words and signs to convey how humble I am. If you want a better example than me, you would need to look at the world of politics. Or business, entertainment, crime or social work. Just saying. False humility can really make you believe your lies.

The "problem" with humility and gratitude is that they are invisible attributes. You cannot display humility and gratitude, you can only be. And more often than not, this results in your being taken for granted, being assumed a pushover, a novice, or even an intellectual or spiritual inferior (there is such a thing in an arrogant world). That is the Google Nose in the story.

Watching the mountain chili plants battle the hot summers in our balcony garden teaches me how to celebrate where one comes from - in more ways than one. Tastes great, and speaks even louder the next day.

I cannot speak of humility, since it implies acceptance of things as they are, and I am merely taking baby steps in that direction, testing the water at the shallow end. The greatness of true humility can transform your life and move on without your ever realizing it. I do not know much about gratitude, but I can point you to someone who does. Gratitude cannot be spoken about in the first place, it can only be expressed and acknowledged through action. That is perhaps why I chose to write about arrogance. I see it in me. I know it in me. I know it all around me. It is perhaps the hallmark of our times. Genetic modifications. Space tourism. Reuptake  inhibitors. The Large Hadron Collider. Why, we don't even need to be arrogant ourselves any more, we can get our smartphones to do it!

I cannot speak of gratitude or humility, but I can speak of selfishness, I can speak of arrogance. I know it from up close. And I encourage all my readers to speak about it too.  If you cannot see it in yourself, and it is possible it is not there to be seen, you will not have to look too far to find it. Think about it. Speak about it. Write about it. Information is power, they say. Maybe if we know enough about it, we might find a way to continue to call ourselves human beings. Beyond the next couple of decades that is. :)


Buddhist thinking goes on to dissect arrogance into nine types, and I thought there could be no better way to end this post than to share with you the insidious nature of this affliction than by quoting from Vasubandhu's 4-5th century glossary of Buddhist concepts, Abhidharmakosha.

There are nine arrogances, and they are (1) thinking that one surpasses one's equals; (2) thinking that one is equal to those who are superior; (3) thinking that one is only slightly inferior to those who are far superior; (4) assuming false humility in affirming the superiority of those in fact superior to oneself; (5) asserting equality with one's equals; (6) asserting the inferiority of one's equals; (7) thinking that one is not surpassed by one's equals; (8) thinking that one's equals are not equal to oneself, i.e., that they are inferior; and (9) humbly acknowledging the superiority of superiors and vaunting one's inferiority (a form of false humility).

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This post was prompted by recent discussions on how appearances and expectations determine judgement. It is prompted by the alarming rise of "thinkers" and "doers" who seems to be totally disconnected from their environment, from where they come from (what a wonderful definition of environment - where we come from). It is prompted by the fact that the most important person to whom this post applies is me, myself, since insight only comes with the accompanying temptation of blindness. Due apologies to Thersites and The Bard for the title. Hope you enjoyed my first post of the cruelest month. Please do jump into the discussion to let me know that there is room out here - at the top!

11 comments:

  1. Arrogance/Ego is one of the greatest factors that lead to our downfall and come in the way as we strive to become better people. We are so drunk by our achievements that we forget that we could have never achieved this on our own!
    Humility and gratitude as you say are invisible. You can talk all you want about being grateful without feeling even an ounce of gratitude. But at the same time I feel that humility is reflected in a person’s actions and behavior !

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  2. False humility is in such abundance... in & outside!
    Subhorup, I wanted to quote a couple of favorite lines in this post and in that attempt I discovered that you disabled "selection of text" in your content area! Would you mind sharing the technique with me?
    Cheers :-)

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  3. Sweet post. I have been arrogant more than once and fallen flat on my face. Fortunately I am blessed with valuable group of friends who let me know when I am about to slip and yes you do need a daily dose of reality to balance your ambition.

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  4. Subho! Please also talk of the accompanying vice - and the root cause of arrogance - this need for one to bolster his own self-respect by comparing himself with others!

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  5. Ego is identifying self as separate from the world around us. Arrogance is exaggerated appreciation of self along with disdain for others. Humility, in our common understanding, is respecting that there is greatness in those around you. But, true humility can only be realised when our sense of self expands to slowly start including the world around us. When that starts to happen, arrogance and humility seem to be two sides to the same coin. Self is the greatest because everything around is the Self.

    Shankari

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    1. You've put it so brilliantly Shankari!

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    2. Don't stroke my arrogance now, Aarathi. ;-)

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  6. I wonder about the arrogance within. I feel like it is somewhat of a shield giving me this illusory sense of "greatness", separating me, giving me the sense of a unique me, better than and different from. It also momentarily ensconces me from the fear of falling, failing and being ordinary, being human.

    Pema Chodron says "Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together". Basking in the glory that life offers may lead to arrogance within but the wretchedness we so often experience softens us. This wonderful thought gives me hope and also grounds me in the humanness of me.

    Thanks for prompting this introspection. Lovely post.

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  7. Nice philosophical analysis. But at some analysis ego is the very essence of existence. So getting rid of it is more aspirational rather than suddenly being without it at the drop of a hat just because you realized it is not good.

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  8. Great analysis! Thought provoking! Wonderful!!

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  9. Arrogance in others is irksome but in self,we would like to term it as self-esteem.
    And false humility--it is so obnoxious.

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