Proud as Sin

I have always loved the word “hubris.”  I learned it in English class when I was fourteen.  We were discussing Greek mythology and it was brought up as an example of how to really tick off the gods: to have “exaggerated pride or self-confidence.”  I love the soft, unassuming sound of the word hubris, how beautifully it juxtaposes the meaning.  I use the word whenever possible.  It is very potent for me, because I think I am a little too well acquainted with it’s manifestations.

It’s a good thing my father is an atheist, because with Pride being the deadliest of sins, he would be in deep doo-doo otherwise.  They say Pride is the worst of the bunch – Lust, Sloth, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Envy – because Pride enables all the others.   I can honestly say that of all those, my father’s only real sin is his Pride, but being a nonbeliever, the concept of sin doesn’t bother him anyway.  The virtuous counterpart to Pride is Humility, but the number of times in my life I have heard my father justify himself and fault everyone else makes me doubt there’s much of that in there.   He almost never apologizes, for anything, and he is hard pressed to offer forgiveness.

My father was brought up in the Southern Methodist church, which is how we were raised until Mother died, and then everyone was pretty much on their own.  In my experience, it seems that religious indoctrination was not a strong suit with the Methodists.  They hit all the obligatory bases that a church is supposed to, but what I remember most about the church going experience are the pancake breakfasts, the spaghetti suppers, and the occasional cake walk.   I know now that these were fundraisers, that the church didn’t inspire enough fiscal generosity with religious overtures to pay the bills, so funds had to be eked out of the congregation via cooking.  As a child, of course, food was easier and more fun to digest than religious doctrine, and therefore most memorable, but you’d think something of a religious nature would have stood out and stuck with me.  It was all too bland, however.   I disliked everything about going to Sunday school and church, except for the doughnuts they served.   Methodism is just not a brickbat kind of denomination.

So I can only assume from my own experience that my father’s religious training was also more like glancing exposure.  Maybe they never warned him about the seven deadly sins, that being more of a Catholic thing.  I’m guessing the perniciousness of Pride never came up.  And even if it had, my father is the type who would see all the bad pride in others, and only good pride in himself.  Bad pride is what other people have when they don’t agree with you and get in your way.  Good pride is what you’re entitled to when you are . . .  my father.

My father was the middle child and the only son.  He was only one of two male cousins an extended family dominated by girls.  He was always pick of the litter.  He was worshipped by the whole family, with his maternal grandmother as head cheerleader.  He was smart and creative.  He was all-american-boyishly handsome, with bedroom eyes and a sweet as pie smile.  He was fearless and ambitious.  As a teenager, he worked several jobs to pay for flying lessons so that he could become a fighter pilot should the country enter WWII.  He got his wish, and he flew one hundred and ten missions by the time he was twenty-one.  He helped liberate France.  Most importantly, he survived.  After the war, he got two masters degrees in engineering and had a successful working career.  He had a good marriage, raised four kids to self-sufficient adulthood, had a second career as a business owner, and then a later life avocation as an art photographer.  All good endeavors, all successful outcomes, all things to be proud of.

My father saw himself as a beacon of honest virtue in an ever encroaching  fog of Sloth and stupidity.  He has always credited his Pride for his accomplishments, and that’s fair.  Those would indeed be the result of good pride, virtues like a strong work ethic, Diligence, Temperance, and Kindness.   He worked hard and followed the rules.  He also knew how to create beauty and fun.  If Pride was that which motivated him to higher things, then he has a right to be proud of that.

He would not recognize or even acknowledge some of his other prideful accomplishments, however.  The darker ones, the bad pride ones.

We, his family, and the things we did, were never quite good enough for him.  We all lived under the pall of my father’s lurking disapproval, which could be both subtly demeaning and overtly withering.  It was always his Pride that justified his Wrath.  Looking back, I can see that my mother took the brunt of this.  I don’t think she was as happy in their marriage as he was, because everything was always strictly on his terms.  They grew up together, so she was well trained and stayed busy with her four children, but I remember seeing moments of what in retrospect I recognize was not Humility but full blown frustration and resentment.  I think she was often depressed.  My older brother, the first born, should have been the next generation’s golden boy, but instead he struggled to grow up in my father’s shadow, failing to live up to like-father-like-son expectations.  He has always been a little tentative, a little diminished, like a plant that never got quite enough light.  The main damage done to us three girls was that the first time out of the gate we all married men who were too much like our father.  Thankfully, each of us eventually corrected that mistake, but only many unhappy years later.  In textbook manner, the things about our husbands that were most like our father made him disapprove of them and vice versa.  All of their bad prides butted heads a lot, so familial relationships were strained.  For too many  years, my father avoided close relationships with our families, so today his grandchildren are strangers to him, and most sadly, he to them.  I say sadly, because under the influence of good Pride, my father was mostly a great dad, sweet and inventive and lots of fun.  His moments of Charity and Kindness were profound.  Had he allowed himself, he would have been a terrific grandfather.

My father worked for several different companies during his career as an engineer.  We were led to believe that each job change was either a promotion or a recruitment to a better company.   It was only last year when my father participated in a life history project for a memory center that I learned that all those job changes were because he had been fired.  Each time the circumstances involved what he called his “integrity”, specifically his having more of it than his boss, and maybe that was true.  But even in his telling of the stories there was the smell of bad Pride all over the place; Envy and Wrath, theirs, and definitely his.   In the end his resume must have been pretty tattered, so he opened his own business, a retail hardware store.  That worked.  With his Diligence and his ability to control everything to his high standards, it was a very successful venture.  It supported him well for thirty years, and when he sold it a few years ago, it set him up with a good retirement.

Dementia is a cruel challenge to anyone’s pride.  My father hangs on to his as best he can, and thankfully mostly the good kind.  The bad kind still shows up now and then, but less and less often.  The good kind also seems to be a comfort to him these days, and he talks a lot about who he was and what he did during the war.  He has dug out pictures of himself from that time and I have framed them for him so he can have a gallery of them across from his bed.  He spends most of his time lying in bed these days, staring at those pictures.  He points them out every day and talks about them, always the same stories over and over.  The pictures and the stories fill him with Pride, and having lost so much else of his life to this disease, it is wonderful to see him full with something he so cherishes.

I take care of my father now.  Many people tell me I should be proud that I am such a good daughter.  Unfortunately, I just can’t put the concepts of me and pride together in one thought.  I don’t think one should be proud of simply doing the right thing, of assuming a necessary responsibility, of paying one’s debts,  or of loving.   Trust me, this is not virtuous Modesty.  It’s just that Pride of every stripe has only been my father’s department.  I just hope that, somewhere in the ranks of all he has ever been proud of, there might be a little room for me.

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