On Bewaring of Pride

My freshman year at BYU, my Book of Mormon professor took a couple classes to warn us of the dangers of self-esteem. It’s been long enough that I don’t remember precisely how she got to self-esteem being a dangerous concept (except something something less than the dust of the earth). It was dumb and harmful, and I objected to it in class, though as an 18-year-old I didn’t have the language to articulate why it was stupid and harmful.[fn1]

While I’m not clear how she derived the idea that self-esteem was harmful, I wouldn’t be shocked if it found its roots in Pres. Benson’s infamous talk “Beware of Pride.”

In his talk, President Benson says that “[i]n the scriptures there is no such thing as righteous pride—it is always considered a sin.” He goes on to explain why pride is a literal “damning sin” and how to counteract its evil effects. And I can see a line from self-esteem to pride.

So are self-esteem, and pride, and Pride, and being Proud to Be an American inherently sinful?

Well, no. And I think Pres. Benson would agree with me on that. (I mean, I’d have to explain myself, but then I think he’d agree.) See, when you look for “pride” in the OED, you get twelve definitions. Some of them are obsolete, and some are irrelevant, but a large handful are relevant. And each has different meaning and connotation. So is something sinful just because it fits within one of a dozen definitions?

That would be absurd. Love them or hate them, but a pride of lions (definition 10) isn’t sinful just because the English language attaches the word “pride” to them.[fn2] Pride may be a sin, but it’s not a sin as a result of its nomenclature.

And the cool thing is, we don’t have to guess what Pres. Benson meant by “pride.” He defines his term within the talk itself! He mentions “self-centeredness, conceit, boastfulness, arrogance, or haughtiness” (roughly definitions 1(a) and 2), but, he says, those miss the core of sinful pride. Pride—the type of pride that is the universal sin and the great vice—is, at its center,

enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. Enmity means “hatred toward, hostility to, or a state of opposition.” It is the power by which Satan wishes to reign over us.

For much of the rest of the talk, Pres. Benson explains and gives examples of this enmity, of how it hurts us and our neighbors spiritually, and what we can do about it. And I agree! Enmity is bad. It’s sinful. It’s a universal sin that we need to actively rid ourselves of.

But enmity is not implicated in every definition of pride; in fact, it’s in opposition to several. Definition 3(a), for instance, is virtually the opposite of enmity:

A consciousness of what befits, is due to, or is worthy of oneself or one’s position; self-respect; self-esteem, esp. of a legitimate or healthy kind or degree.

This type of pride—self-esteem, if you will—is basically recognition of our inherent and eternal worth. Among other things, it embraces recognizing ourselves as children of a loving God.

Similarly, 6(a) defines “pride” as

A sense of confidence, self-respect, and solidarity as felt or publicly expressed by members of a group (typically one that has been socially marginalized) on the basis of their shared identity, history, and experience.

Again, this type of pride is the opposite of enmity—it’s solidarity with one’s neighbors.

Pres. Benson’s “Beware of Pride” was an important—and evergreen—talk. The enmity of pride is damaging and dangerous. But we do his warnings a disservice when we don’t actually look at what he means by pride and instead attach it to any English language usage of the word.


[fn1] It wasn’t limited to the religion department at BYU. At a stake conference after my mission, a stake president’s wife spoke about how her daughter had come home from school one day and mentioned self-esteem, and the stake president and his wife had explained how harmful the idea of self-esteem was.

[fn2] Though to be fair, you should probably also beware of a pride of lions, albeit for different reasons!

Photo by Leonard von Bibra on Unsplash

Comments

  1. Yes. Comparatives are a tip-off for me. Better, stronger, wiser, bigger, smarter, more important. For particular use at BCC, “I know better” is a clue.

    On the other hand, I’m cautious about calling out pride or hubris when there is a power differential. Many who feel entitled to power take any challenge badly and label it pride. Standing up to a bully is an exercise in self-esteem. Usually the bully doesn’t see it that way. Closer to home, when an individuating teenager stands up to her parents she may be called out as though her self-esteem is a dangerous sin.

  2. Thanks Chris; that’s in important point. Pres. Benson’s talk isn’t aimed at recognizing enmity-pride in others; he explicitly says it’s easy to recognize in others and much harder to recognize in oneself. The talk is aimed internally—am I acting out of enmity-pride? It’s not designed to be used to condemn that pride in others (though, again, we not infrequently use it that way).

  3. RAF, I’m going to respectfully suggest the Jim is wrong. Or, at least, is using a deeply idiosyncratic definition of “self-esteem.”

    I have better tools to explain myself now than I did a lifetime ago when I was 18. It’s kind of orthogonal to the post’s point, though, so I’m not going to spend much time on it, except to say that being able to say self-esteem is unnecessary, and perhaps even bad, comes from a place of deep privilege (and particularly white and straight and male privilege). And I certainly come from that place of privilege.

    I also don’t think that’s what Pres. Benson is warning against. He makes it explicit that the sin in pride is enmity, is setting oneself against (and often above) one’s neighbor and one’s God. But treating a proper regard for one’s inherent worth as somehow antithetical to recognizing the worth of others is a deeply harmful place to come from. I don’t see how it is anything other than telling people that they are subordinate to, and less valuable than, other people.

    So yes, it’s fine for me to tell myself that self-esteem is bad and that I shouldn’t feel my own worth. But it’s fine precisely because I absolutely do not believe it. I’m entirely confident that I’m a person with inherent worth, so my saying that I don’t need self-esteem is meaningless and harmless to me.

    Not everybody shares my ego, though.

  4. One more small thing: Jim’s assertion that we didn’t talk about self-esteem much 50 years ago or at all 100 years ago is pretty meaningless to me. First, it’s because I don’t know if it’s true. But even if it’s true, we live in a world that is substantially different today than it was 50 or 100 years ago. This idea of (non-enmity) pride and self-esteem were critical parts of various civil rights movements.

    His article reminds me of something that seems to have been in the water in Provo in the mid-90s when I was there. And it’s a conclusion that I don’t believe you can arrive at based either on scripture or on Benson’s talk, unless you’re using an insider language, using words differently from how they’re commonly used. But if you want to do that, you really need to follow Pres. Benson’s lead and carefully define your terms.

  5. Loursat says:

    There was an influential strand of popular psychology emphasizing self-esteem that emerged toward the end of the 1960s and endured at least into the 90s. Maybe you’ll remember that a sardonic nickname for the 1970s was the “Me” Decade. One very popular book from that era was called How to Be Your Own Best Friend. The book encouraged people to love themselves and get rid of negative influences in their lives—a negative influence being anyone whose needs might potentially outweigh or overshadow your own.

    This was a toxic version of the concept of self-esteem. I think this is largely what people like President Benson and Jim Faulconer were reacting to thirty or forty years ago. It was not just a thing in the water in Provo in the 90s. It had penetrated American culture pretty widely. Today we no longer have the same cultural fixation on self-esteem, so it’s hard for us to read President Benson’s sermon or Faulconer’s essay in the context of their times.

    How should we think about self-esteem now? I think Sam’s comment about privilege is important. Self-esteem can mean something very different to a socially and economically secure person than it means to people who have struggled against prejudice and disadvantage all their lives.

    Which brings us to Pride Month. Consider what to do if you’re part of a group that that was taught from birth to be ashamed of who you are to your very core. How do you overcome that? Claiming pride in your identity is a way of announcing that you deserve the same standing before God and society as anyone else. Following Sam’s quote from the OED, taking pride in your identity is the way to become “conscious of what befits, is due to, or is worthy of oneself or one’s position.” That consciousness enables us to see ourselves and each other for who we are. It is a fundamental condition of our salvation.

  6. Loursat, that’s a charitable and helpful read. (My experience with self-esteem has by and large been the current version; I am just barely too young to have any direct experience with self-help books from the 1970s.) The version of self-esteem that you’re describing certainly fits within Pres. Benson’s definition of “pride,” and to the extent that’s what people think of when they think pride or self-esteem, then I think it does fall on the wrong side of the line of pride. I also think that for the last couple decades at least, that’s not what people think when they think “self-esteem,” and it’s largely not what they think when they think “pride.” Which honestly is why I’m happy Pres. Benson was careful enough to define what he meant.

  7. My perspective is that knocking down self-esteem is a tactic of high demand religions, just as it is with an abusive partner, in order to create dependency. Christianity teaches that humans are broken and fallen, that we need Jesus Christ, that we are nothing without Christ. The church offers the cure or solution, but we must dedicate ourselves to the church and all of their rites, rituals, sacraments, rules, policies, teachings, commandments, and norms. My experience in walking away from the Mormon faith, and what I have gleaned from others who have also walked away, is that we are better emotionally adjusted as we reclaim our goodness, power, and worthiness independent of God, Jesus, and the church. Self-esteem is critical for emotional health. I am not saying faithful church members cannot be emotionally healthy and strong, or even that having a belief or faith in Christ is detrimental. Many faithful members have healthy self-esteem and will attribute that to their relationship with Christ. What I am trying to say is that self-esteem, self-confidence, self-belief, self-acceptance, self-joy, self-peace, and self-power, and self-worthiness are critical to emotional health and flourishing. The battle over the word ‘pride’ is largely semantical as Sam points out. I am old enough to remember listening first-hand to Ezra Benson’s talk on pride. It has been argued fervently ever since. My plea to everyone out there, whether you are faithful TBM or not, is to accept and love yourself. Cultivate a genuine internal attitude of worthiness and goodness.
    “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

  8. lastlemming says:

    I was vaguely aware of the toxic self-esteem movement in the 70s. But even then, whenever the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” was quoted in Sunday School, somebody would pipe up and remind us that loving our neighbor as ourselves doesn’t mean much if we hate ourselves.

  9. I once had a Bishop who over the pulpit said something to the effect of “I want to say that I’m really proud of our Priests quorum. But pride is a sin. So I will say, ‘Our Priests quorum, in whom I am well pleased.'”
    The pride talk is an exercise in Philippians 4:12. Self-doubt and self-pity can easily become unhealthy and debilitating. On the other hand, arrogance and vanity are sinful traits. Encouraging self-esteem and pride can help pull someone out of self-doubt, and gain a healthy confidence in themselves. On the other hand, people can be so prideful that they need to be humbled. There is a balance that needs to be struck.
    You need to be able to say “Job well done” when a job is well done.

  10. I think that’s an important point about finding a balance, jader3rd. If I were writing the talk on a blank slate, I think I would have chosen different word than “pride” (in fact, I really can’t think of a better descriptor than “enmity”). But at the same time, between the Seven Deadly Sins and what we’ve name the “pride cycle” in the Book of Mormon, “pride” is definitely an apt word, as long as we keep in mind that “pride” has multiple connotations and denotations and Pres. Benson’s talk is referring to specific definitions of the word.

  11. Clueless in Seattle says:

    Sam,

    Sad to say it but America is anything to be proud of these days. By almost any measure there are better countries to live. Gun violence, incivility, political corruption, child poverty, systemic racism, economic inequality, homelessness, an epidemic of drug overdoses, belief in crazy conspiracy theories. America is reaping the rewards of pride President Benson described. America is in decline… let’s not be too proud to see it.

  12. Old woman says:

    Great post Sam, and a much needed distinction between the kind of pride in President Benson’s talk and the self esteem movement of the time. I was raising young children when the movement was in full force. During the 70’s Relief Society met on weekdays and we had lessons that came under the heading of “Mother Education”. There was heavy emphasis on helping our children develop self-esteem. Those lessons, seemed to be “over the top” and always left me unsettled. My sons’ baseball team all got trophy’s in spite of the fact that their team came in last. Their coach thought it ridiculous.

    I have also been unsettled by President Benson’s talk as it really didn’t seem to match the character of the man as I knew him before he became President. His anti communist stance, his involvement in John Birch Society, the brethern sending him to oversee missionary work in Europe to get the politics out of him, all don’t fit the persona of a the man who wrote that talk. He never actually delivered that talk, as his health wouldn’t allow it.Gordon B. Hinkley delivered it. He was plagued by ill health, strokes, dementia the last few years of his life. The talk parallels the work of a CS Lewis’ chapter in Mere Christianity which I have read. Interesting, and doubtful that President. Benson wrote the talk. I will leave it at that. In any case, it was a great talk, and I have a few favorite quotes from it that I like.

    Very timely post Sam as there is too much “us vs. them” mentality among members of the church today., Thank you.

  13. your food allergy says:

    The talk by President Benson really needs a citation to Mere Christianity, in which CS Lewis describes pride as “the great sin” and “the worst of all vices,” and identifies the root problem with pride to be “enmity.”

  14. your food allergy says:

    Oops, Old woman already said that.

  15. Thank you Old woman and your food allergy!

  16. Loved this post, and the following discussion was just as good!

    Old woman, according to Steve Benson, notable ex-mormon gadfly and grandson of ETB, the talk was written by a family member:

    Several years ago, I visited with May Benson (daughter-in-law of Ezra Taft Benson and wife of Reed Benson, Ezra Taft Benson’s oldest child), in their home in Provo, Utah, during which time the subject of pride and my grandfather’s sermon on the matter was a focus of conversation.

    The first occasion was prior to the public delivery of Ezra Taft Benson’s sermon by Gordon B. Hinckley in the April 1989 General Conference and the second visit took place after the speech.

    May said that she had very strong feelings about the subject of pride. She was especially offended and concerned with what she regarded as the Benson family’s own problems with pride. (In fact, she said she had gotten up in disgust and walked out of a wedding breakfast for my sister Meg, when one of the daughters of Ezra Taft Benson, Beverly Benson Parker, as she was listening to the father of the groom, Cap Ferry, make some remarks to the assembled, leaned over and whispered self-righteously to others at the table, “Well, we know which family was blessed with the spirituality”).

    May said she had put together quite a few thoughts on the subject of pride that she hoped someday to compile and publish in a book.

    However, after my grandfather’s pride sermon was delivered, May said that she no longer felt it necessary to publish her hoped-for book. Why? Because, she said, her husband, Reed, had spoken with Ezra Taft Benson about her research on the topic. May was clearly indicating that her information and study efforts had been used in crafting my grandfather’s sermon on pride.

    However, the true extent of May Benson’s involvement in that effort was not shared with us by her and did not become evident until some time later. Reliable sources in Provo subsequently informed me of rumors that May herself may have worked on Ezra Taft Benson’s sermon. This I was able to later confirm directly from a credible source inside the Benson family who knows May quite well, who was familiar with the situation and who wishes to remain anonymous. The source told me in a face-to-face meeting that May Benson, daughter-in-law of Ezra Taft Benson through marriage to his son Reed, traveled to St. George, Utah, where over a period of several weeks “she wrote his talk.”

    From exmo reddit.

  17. I wonder if your BoM teacher had read Ester Rasband’s “Confronting the Myth of Self Esteem” (1998)? It’s been a long time since I read it, but I remember really liking it. If memory serves Rasband was arguing against a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” way of understanding the Atonement and “scrupulously keep all the rules/wear out your life to show how good your are” approach to feeling loved or needed.

    I think I’m close to your age, Sam, as I missed the 70s books, but remember a lot of 90s self-esteem talk. At the same time I somehow absorbed the idea that the atonement was for “wicked” people, but as a member of the church I should be good enough not to need it. This was a toxic combination for me: have self-esteem (or at least appear to have it), but never rely on other people or the divine for any support.

    So, as I remember, Rasband advocated for a sense of self-worth anchored in the permanence of God’s love and the atonement as a manifestation of God’s grace for all of us. I remember one of her stories quite clearly – they made pins for a YWs activity that said “I’m lovable!” on them. She later realized what a mistake that was because it doesn’t matter if we are lovable or not, we are loved anyway. She went from there to say lasting, healthy sense of self worth grows from being loved. So, she was trying to push against the “earn salvation” way of understanding the atonement and a superficial sense of self-esteem based on the approval of others.

    So, that’s my long-winded way of saying I wonder if your BoM teacher (in addition to other influences) knew about/read that book and missed its real point.

  18. Old woman says:

    BHodges, Thank you for the information. Very fascinating. President’s Benson’s talk is considered a classic, yet it was not delivered by him, nor written by him (according to this information),“inspired” by another author’s work, and written by a woman. Very ironic given the topic of the talk.

  19. Old woman says:

    I don’t mean my comments to be a reflection on President Benson. It is more a commentary on the forces that created this situation in the first place.

  20. The talk is very ‘anti’ Benson. I mean it mentions several times the problematic nature of competition. Nothing remotely close to the absolutist free-market capitalist views he so often propagated and disguised as democracy. My wife often thinks of it as his ‘death-bed repentance’ talk–or at least, now that have a clearer picture, his acceptance of a ‘not-his’ talk as to what really mattered over all that crap he had refused to quit spewing for so long.

  21. Chadwick says:

    Thank you Loursat and Tim. Your comments are very insightful.

  22. One of my kids brought home a sticker from school this week that says: “Don’t stop until you’re proud”. And I think that’s a perfectly fine way to encourage kids to do their best.

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