In Step 7 of the 12&12, we read that “Humility, as a word and as an ideal, has a very bad time in our world.” Bill W. wrote that at the beginning of the 1950’s. If he were writing today, almost three-quarters of a century later, he would probably add that pride, by contrast, is having a decidedly good time.
We need only google the word to see that, if for most of history pride was considered a vice which few would willingly admit to, it is now celebrated as the equivalent of a virtue by growing segments of society—a development which, not incidentally, the Big Book and the 12&12 anticipated. Pride and humility are effectively switching places, the latter coming to be seen as a weakness if not an outright flaw.
Thus, if it was hard for the early AAs to grapple with the roles of humility and pride in our recovery, it is even more difficult for us. We not only have to deal with our own natural resistance to the one and our equally natural inclination toward the other, but we also have to buck much of the culture.
For there is no question that, as we find it in the Big Book and the 12&12, the AA view of pride is that it is a singularly bad thing. There are 31 mentions of pride, 3 of prideful, and 1 of proud. They are all negative. AA has nothing good to say about pride. It is a defect of character, period. Indeed, it is the worst of all possible defects.
And yet, leaving the excesses of our cultural moment aside, most of us cannot help but feel that not all pride is really bad. At one time or another, we have all used or heard someone use pride in a positive sense which doesn’t seem to be connected with anything harmful or defective. We speak of being proud of our children for doing well in school, or of our significant other for getting a well-deserved promotion at work, or of a friend for starting her own business. What’s wrong with being proud of others in these various ways?
Nothing, our two books would say if they were using pride to reference those kinds of attitudes in those kinds of situations. But they are not. They are using pride with reference to defective traits of character and their accompanying distorted emotions. In them, pride has one kind of meaning, the kind which is related to harm and wrongdoing and which, until recently, was the main connotation of the term.
Part of the problem for many of us is a linguistic one. This is the fact that the same term is being used for two entirely different things. One is a considered a defect, the other is not. Our two texts reveal an awareness of this when they qualify the term, as in “false” pride (12&12, S12, p. 123) and “unwarranted” pride (12&12, S4, p. 47). If there’s a type of pride which is false or unwarranted, then presumably there’s another type which is not. Yet our texts do not insist on the distinction, for their solution to the former lies, not in the latter, but in the entirely different disposition which is signified by the term humility.
Still, if we are to see where the defect really lies, we need to see where it doesn’t. Pride which may not be necessarily false or unwarranted refers to the pleasure or satisfaction we take in some good (e.g., an accomplishment, attribute, possession, association) which reflects well upon ourselves or those we love, as in the examples already cited. The false, unwarranted, or defective sort of pride refers to the pleasure or satisfaction we take in some good which reflects, not only or not so much well, but better upon ourselves, in comparison necessarily with others.
The problem of using the same term for two different sorts of pride exist in other languages. Some employ unique solutions. Spanish, for instance, uses its equivalent of proud (orgulloso) with two different forms of the verb “to be,” one (estar) to reference an ad hoc and limited response to a circumstantial good (our child doing well in school), and the other (ser) to reference a habitual state or condition (too proud to admit being wrong). The latter is the defect. (Spanish also has a term for pride which is always of the bad variety—soberbia—but which is not used in ordinary conversation.)
Other languages use different terms to distinguish between the two sorts of pride. French, for instance, distinguishes between l’orgueil (the bad sort) and la fierté (the good), while Italian does the same with its two equivalent words, orgoglioso and fiero. (However, not everyone makes these distinctions.)
Most languages, however, seem to use other, more standard solutions, like qualifying the term, as already noted. This is the function of the parenthetical “too” in the last example, where the adverb connotes excessive and therefore defective, pride, a connotation which also attaches to being “prideful,” (i.e., full of pride) as opposed to just being proud.
In English, the current tendency is to avoid the problem by abandoning the use of pride as a blanket term with uniformly negative connotations and employing instead other, related terms which more specifically reference the variety of its defective forms or manifestations. We have dozens of such words and expressions. The most common perhaps is ego (with derivatives like egocentric, egoism, egomaniac, egotism, and ego trip). Ego is Latin for “I,” and thus it nicely captures what is at the heart of defective pride: an excessive concern with oneself. Others are arrogance, conceit, hubris, and narcissism, or being haughty, puffed up, smug, snobbish, snotty, stuck up, uppity, or vain.
The most common and broadest in AA are selfishness and self-centeredness, which the Big Book says are at the root of our problems and which, even better than ego, get at the essence of defective pride as disordered self-involvement. Others are boastful, braggart, cocky, grandiose, presumption, show-off, vainglory, and of course the many hyphenated corollaries of selfish and self-centered, such as self-importance, self-satisfied, self-sufficient, and self-reliance of the inordinate kind.
When the Big Book and the 12&12 talk about pride, then, these are the things they are talking about. When the 12&12 says that“[P]ride, leading to self-justification, and always spurred by conscious or unconscious fears, is the basic breeder of most human difficulties, the chief block to true progress" (Step 4, p. 48-29), it is talking about these forms of defective pride.
A full understanding of pride as a character defect requires therefore a full understanding of its manifold and specific defective manifestations in us, a task we undertake in earnest with Step 4 as we examine specific relationships in specific situations. Otherwise, the term remains too general and too broad to be of much practical help—as well as too vulnerable to cultural challenges which can sow confusion and easily lead us into rationalization and self-justification.
Pride makes us particularly susceptible to this. The reason is that pride is the hardest defect to recognize in ourselves. This is so for two reasons. First, pride makes us think too highly of ourselves, making it more difficult to see our flaws. Second, pride hides behind those flaws, making it harder to detect its presence.
These reasons help to explain why pride, as explained in our two texts, historically has been considered more than just another character defect. It is the deadliest of them, the seed from which they sprout and the root which sustains them. Pride “heads the procession” of the other capital vices or deadly sins: anger, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, and sloth. It “lures us into making demands upon ourselves or upon others which cannot be met without perverting or misusing our God-given instincts.” It is the main breeder of fear, “a soul-sickness in its own right” (p. 48-49). It leads us into “playing God” (Big Book, p. 62).
But if pride is the breeding ground of all character defects, humility is the nourishing soil of all the virtues. Thus seen, recovery is a lifelong process of surrendering the one and growing in the other. All of the 12 Steps, we are told, deflate our egos (12&12, S5, p. 55). The attainment of greater humility is the foundational principle in each and every one (12&12, S7, p. 70). The same is true of the 12 Traditions. They all aim to keep the self-asserting ego at bay and foster the spirit of humility which in the form of anonymity constitutes their spiritual foundation.
The pride that afflicts us as a defect is identified and surrendered as we identify and surrender it in every other defect. Similarly, humility is practiced and acquired in the process of practicing and acquiring every other virtue, for in some measure each requires that we humble ourselves.
We can move toward these goals as we work all of the Steps, practicing a day at a time all of their principles in all areas of our lives.
[Image: Hank P., AA #2 in NY, author of Big Book’s chapter “To Employers" and story “The Unbeliever.” For Q&A about the two, please click on links. For Hank’s role in AA and the Big Book, see William H. Schaberg, Writing the Big Book: The Creation of A.A., Chapter 9, “Hank’s Ideas,” and Chapter 20, “Hank Parkhurst: Managing Editor and ‘To Employers’’’, as well as appendices II, V, and VIII. For an audio of this post, please click on link.]