Friday, November 28, 2008

the ambiguity of pride

A couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of a story by Kahlil Gibran, entitled “The ambitious violet”. The entire story is of course worth reading, particularly for Gibran’s beautiful use of language, but I will summarize for the sake of this entry.

A small violet is in a garden, among other violets, lovely but low to the ground. She is happy with her lot, until she sees a rose rising majestically among all the other flowers and displaying a glory like the violet had never imagined. Then the violet begins to lament her lot in life, consigned to such a humble place when she wants to lift her head high like the roses do.

She is heard both by the rose and by Nature, who try to convince the violet that her place is fitting. The rose says that the violet has a unique beauty and should be content rather than try to exalt herself. Nature asks why the violet has suddenly become so greedy and warns that ambition will lead to disaster. The violet wants nothing more than to become a rose for one day, and Nature grants her wish.

That night, a storm sweeps through the garden. All of the tall flowers are torn up and thrown about, and only the patch of humble violets is spared. They look about, grateful for their salvation; then they see the rose that had been a violet dying on the ground, and they mock her for the result of her greed.

The dying rose replies:
You are contended and meek dullards; I have never feared the tempest. Yesterday I, too, was satisfied and contented with Life, but Contentment has acted as a barrier between my existence and the tempest of Life, confining me to a sickly and sluggish peace and tranquility of mind. I could have lived the same life you are living now by clinging with fear to the earth.... I could have waited for winter to shroud me with snow and deliver me to Death, who will surely claim all violets.... I am happy now because I have probed outside my little world into the mystery of the Universe.... something which you have not yet done.

I could have overlooked Greed, whose nature is higher than mine, but as I hearkened to the silence of the night, I heard the heavenly world talking to this earthly world, saying, ‘Ambition beyond existence is the essential purpose of our being.’ At that moment my spirit revolted and my heart longed for a position higher than my limited existence. I realized that the abyss cannot hear the song of the stars, and at that moment I commenced fighting against my smallness and craving for that which did not belong to me, until my rebelliousness turned into a great power, and my longing into a creating will.... Nature, who is the great object of our deeper dreams, granted my request and changed me into a rose with her magic fingers.

She concludes:
I have lived one hour as a proud rose; I have existed for a time like a queen; I have looked at the Universe from behind the eyes of the rose; I have heard the whisper of the firmament through the ears of the rose and touched the folds of Light’s garment with rose petals. Is there any here who can claim such honor? I shall die now, for my souls has attained its goal. I have finally extended my knowledge to a world beyond the narrow cavern of my birth. This is the design of Life.... This is the secret of Existence.
The rose passes away, but with a smile of hope and fulfillment, “a God’s smile.”

The proper balance of humility and pride is a difficult one to achieve in the Christian life. The difficulty is compounded by the dual meaning of both words, particularly pride. We try, without much linguistic success, to laud the pride that leads to good and productive work while deploring the pride that leads to arrogance and damaged relationships. Humility, meanwhile, is a quality we seek as we approach God, even as we know that self-deprecation can be detrimental to our well-being (and we have faith that God desires our well-being).

Gibran himself was a Christian (a Maronite), and much of what I have read of his work is sharp in distinguishing what one learns from the teachings of Jesus and what one encounters in the church. A principal theme of his writing is to speak out against oppression, especially when done in the name of religion. He knew what many people suffer when they are kept ignorant and cattle-like, not just physically but spiritually. This is imposed humility; this is the suppression of pride. One feature of oppressive philosophy is that it exploits the ambiguity of language to confuse the mind to believe that what is good is bad, and vice versa. We may think we are being good for not wanting anything better in life (doesn’t Paul say we should be “content in all circumstances”?), forgetting that God also requires that we give our best back to Him, that we “invest our talents” in a “good and trustworthy” manner.

When I read the story of the violet, amid a collection of other stories and poems, several of which address Gibran’s longing for the people he loves to be released from economic and psychological slavery, I interpreted it primarily as a social commentary. At the beginning, when the rose tells the violet that she should be happy where she is, the violet responds, “How painful is the preaching of the fortunate to the heart of the miserable! And how severe is the strong when he stands as advisor among the weak!” The rose may have thought that her words were comfort, but the violet, already reaching beyond her current place, tells the rose that instead the words are wounding. They are falsely pious and, in the end, contemptuous of the notion that the violet could ever be anything greater than what she is. Notice the word “yet” in the violet’s speech to her sisters the night after the storm: even as she chastises them for not realizing what greatness she herself has experienced, she lets them know that it is still possible for them to reach for the same heights and to know, before they die, what it is to live. She is, in a way, very nearly a martyr.

When I told the story to Hannah, who has read less Gibran but has a keen sense of the meaning of text qua text, her first question was, “Do you think Gibran was an existentialist?” She saw the point of the story less as overcoming oppression and more as finding purpose and meaning in life. It is rather existentialist, in that sense. The rose’s life is richer than that of the violets, even though it only lasted a day. Victory is gained not by pushing away the end of life, but by ceasing to fear it.

Let us not seek quietness and contentment simply because it is easier and safer. Let us be daring and humble; let us find all that is good in the meaning of pride and humility and life and existence. Let us not merely consume, but let us find the richness of life and enjoy it and develop it. I will not say that if we have been violets, we should become roses, but instead that we should seek freely and joyfully, without constraint, to live life fully. We should praise those who have reached what they desired, and we should work to lift the hindrances to others’ achievement. The tempest will not cease, but it is no reason for us to remain small.

1 comment:

jhb said...

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
(Nelson Mandella)