When I was very young my parents attended a church where, during worship, women would praise dance with streamers in the back. I thought the women looked like princesses and I wanted to do it too. When asked my mom if I could, she said yes – but I needed to understand why I wanted to do it. Was it because I wanted to look pretty and have people like me? Or was it to worship God in selflessness and humility? She said if I wanted to do anything out of pride and selfishness, that I should not do it. After thinking about this, I chose not to dance.
Christians have a whole set of vocabulary and cultural ideas to deal with this idea of modesty, which is entirely foreign to a nonreligious mindset. An action is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on whether the pleasure you get out of it is filtered through “for God” or for “self gain.”
This underpins clothing (why would you want to dress flashy? how does that glorify the Lord?), charity (if you attach your name to gift giving, that glorifies yourself, you asshole) to spiritual success (don’t claim responsibility for walking the righteous path, you sinner, God did that). My particular denomination went so far as to say that claiming responsibility for ‘accepting Jesus into your heart’ was too much, that God did that too – that salvation had nothing to do with you, fuck you you incompetent adamspawn.
This has a lot of psychological effects, such as fusing together the feeling of ‘pride’ and ‘shame,’ or keeping you in a constant state of failure because self-motivated pleasure is so easy to feel, or destroying your ability to think any thoughts that place yourself in a position of authority.
(Incidentally, this is related to the Christian argument about morals – they say no matter what moral outrage we feel towards God’s actions in the Bible, we are unjustified, because God is the ultimate arbiter of morality. To claim that our judgement takes precedence is a prideful act, fuck you, inherently depraved scum.)
But this can also feel subjectively pretty good in a way that’s difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Surrendering is cathartic. I’ve seen many Christian people (myself included) sacrifice incredible amounts and live in holy pain, enduring it stoically because it is ‘God’s will.’ I used to view these people as victims, but I’ve come to realize that they have what I call ‘martyr syndrome’ – engaging in surrender because it (ironically) gives them a sense of achievement. Pride results in uncertainty of self worth, which can be very anxiety inducing. Christianity takes this stress of agency and redirects it into simple uniform submission – pain with a purpose. This is what some Christians mean when they talk about finding peace in the Lord.
It should be clear how negatively I feel about the Christian mindset in general, but there is legitimate benefit here. The effect of anxiety reduction and a sense of purpose is pretty huge, so they’re doing something right, and I recognize strong parallels in the psychedelic experience.
I think the Christian issue is not exactly their obsession with sacrificing pride, but that they do it in such a way that emphasizes taking on the responsibility of sin.
I am increasingly finding the sensation of pride to be unpleasant – not by judging it to be terrible, but naturally. It’s just happening. I think I enjoy it less because I feel more aware of how fragile it is – that it only exists in contrast to my surroundings, and thus that I am wholly dependent on my environment, which I cannot control, in order to have this feeling.
For example: I draw a nice picture and people tell me I’m a great artist. I feel good and I want to show even more people the art because I love to feel that people are impressed with me, and like me, and want me.
Emboldened by the praise, I take my sketchbook and go to an art convention, where I am surrounded by serious artists. My doodles are nothing in comparison. I see how unskilled I am, and so does everyone else, even if they’re nice about it. Nobody values me here, and I feel embarrassed that I thought I was worthy enough to attend.
Where does ‘pride in my work’ lie, then? In myself and my work, or in the contrast of my work to my environment?
This is a pretty obvious example, but it occurs all the time in microscopic ways, every time we feel a desire for anything that furthers a pleasurable sense of our own identity – when we make a joke people laugh at, when we dance at a club, when we wear clothes we like. All of these things exist in contrast to our environment just as much as my sketchbook did, but we don’t notice it because our environment doesn’t change enough to show us the difference. If I’d never gone to the art convention, I would never have noticed that my pride for my art didn’t actually come from my art.
Really, everything we like about ourselves is formed by comparison to environment. If we dropped you into an alien planet with an entirely different value set, your sense of self-value would become completely different.
So when we feel pride, it’s not about us, not really – it’s about feeling better than our environment, which depends on what the environment is. Not on you.
Dwelling on this can create a pretty neutral feeling when ‘doing impressive things.’ It makes the thing feel not impressive at all; it’s just a thing, being done. The impressiveness is all about perspective.
I’m using all this as a very roundabout way of saying that this can be applied to shame as well. In exactly the ways we are prideful when we do better than our environment, we feel ashamed when we do worse, and more importantly, they are contingent. To invest in contrast is to invest both sides of the contrast – that’s what it means to invest in contrast! Any feeling of shame you have is what allows you to feel pride. It is the price you pay for that joy.
If you do have a desire to eliminate your sense of shame, of self-criticism, of failure, then know that you cannot do so without also eliminating your sense of pride. If you decide that enduring the presence of self-worth anxiety is worth it for the joy of the pride you feel, then congratulations – your shame is serving you by giving you purpose to your pain. This is an absolutely valid decision and I equally admire and love people who choose this as much as I love and admire those who don’t.
If you decide it’s not worth it, then trying to reduce a sense of failure by emphasizing your sense of pride is rather amusedly self defeating. It may feel like it works, sort of like we imagine driven businessmen may have done it all because they want to prove to themselves that they’re worth something – but they did not succeed by eliminating the anxiety of failure. Saying that being successful eliminates failure anxiety is sort of like saying running from a bear kills the bear. You may be going an impressive distance, but you wouldn’t be running if there weren’t a bear.
Anyway my main point is that if you have this idea in your mind that you want to ‘accept yourself’ and ‘forgive your failures’ and ‘don’t feel ashamed,’ then you have to equally lose the thing that makes you value yourself for your success.
The Christians got it half right – they somehow identified some peace in the loss of pride, but instead of going about it naturally they codified it into a law and tried to slam it into people. The tendency of religion (and culture, and people) to figure out something nice and, in trying to communicate it, turn it into a Serious Law, is really consistent and impressive. I need to write about it.
So in summary: It’s all the environment, man. Your genes, your upbringing. You had no influence in what sperm got into your mom’s egg. You are a biological process that got pooped out into an inevitable universe, a fatty tissuey boney body that’s typing some shit on a computer, thinking that ‘it’ is doing it all, that ‘it’ is making the importance, the impressiveness. What else could have happened, really?