Words That Changed My Life: Hubris

31 05 2012

For much of my early life, I was not particularly self-aware. Self-conscious? Absolutely. But I had not yet learned to see myself, my actions, my interactions with others from an analytical perspective. I simply could not stand outside myself and review with honesty my actions, motivations, or emotions. As a result, I was often taken by surprise, both by my own choices and by the reactions of others toward me.

My junior year in college, I took a Greek Mythology course as an elective. The course was taught by a nun who had spent most of her career teaching in grade school. We were horrified, on the first day of class, to be told we must respond in unison to her questions. We were also given worksheets and made to place them in exact order in our notebooks at the exact same moment, so that the noise of opening our required 3-ring binders (then snapping them shut) would take place all at once – no stragglers allowed. We were required to turn in the binders weekly. Misplaced worksheets resulted in deducted points. We began the semester hating that we were being treated like children. After all, we were confident and competent adults.

Through the course of the semester, though, my classmates and I grew to love Sister’s techniques. First, we decided to have fun with the novelty of returning to our third grade classroom structure. Then, the sheer amount of information we were actually learning – and retaining – became fun in a different way.

One concept that has stuck with me from that course is the idea of hubris. “The word was used to refer to the emotions in Greek tragic heroes that led them to ignore warnings from the gods and thus invite catastrophe. It is considered a form of hamartia or tragic flaw that stems from overbearing pride and lack of piety.” (eNotes: Guide to Literary Terms) Hubris: on one level I kept the word in my arsenal because I love words, and this is a good one to pull out in arguments and essays.

On another, deeper, level the idea that overbearing pride could be a tragic flaw was working on me. How would I know if I suffered from this? I mean, does anyone with this problem know they have it? Or are they all so arrogantly sure of themselves that they would never recognize their own puffed-up sense of self? The more I thought about it, the more relief I felt. After all, I was the opposite of self-confident – I was fearful in every way. And I was sure that everyone could see my inadequacy, despite my efforts to cover it up.

Pride, as they say, cometh before a fall. I reached a point in my life when it occurred to me that I had been allowing my life to happen to me, rather than actively living it. Of course, this realization came about as the result of pain and unhappiness that finally became too great to ignore. I think for most of us, these emotional growth spurts are often the result of difficulties, challenges, sadness rather than of happy times. The rawness of our emotions can cleanse away the lethargy and inertia of daily life, and we see ourselves more clearly.

What I saw in myself was an unbending pride that approached the level of tragic flaw. My pride didn’t stem from arrogance and overblown confidence. Mine stemmed from that very sense of inadequacy rooted deep in my psyche. My pride did everything it could to hide my unworthiness. I never wanted anyone to know I was clueless in a new situation, so my pride prevented me from asking questions. I never wanted to appear as stupid as I felt, so my pride kept me from venturing opinions or seeking out mentors and teachers. I certainly didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, so my pride prevented me from reaching out honestly and letting my friends know I was in pain, or lonely.

In Greek mythology, the story of Icarus is often used to describe the concept of hubris:

The main story told about Icarus is his attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. He ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall into the sea where he drowned. The myth shares thematic similarities with that of Phaëton — both are usually taken as tragic examples of hubris or failed ambition — and is often depicted in art. (Wikipedia)
 

Presented with hubris in the context of my mistaken pride, which prevented me from fully engaging with others in my life, or with that of Icarus, I now see the second manifestation as preferable. At least Icarus’ pride led him to strive for something greater with his life – rather than using pride to keep life small and crabbed into a safe little box. I can’t say with utter assurance that I have mastered my tragic flaw. But I can say that, finally, I am self-aware enough to be able to see my choices and behaviors in light of how they either are filling my life or depleting my life – and then to take corrective action. Sometimes, I am even able to reflect on possible choices and take the best path first. And that, friends, is worth suffering a blow to one’s pride.

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