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The Problem With Self-Esteem

05/17/2010 10:24 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I'm pretty much a slow learner. Among the many lifelong lessons I'm finally catching on to, the most important would have to be seeing the paradoxical, shooting-yourself-in-the-foot nature of self-interest -- the self-defeating nature of self-regard.

Following the tragic madness and confusion of September 11, 2001, many angry and frightened Americans responded in a startling variety of ways, some of them supplying to our singular moment an additional tragic madness.

Besides an array of earnestly patriotic gestures--a proliferation of American flags, impromptu rallies of solidarity, and frankly beautiful acts of kindness--I recall a flood of pathos-laden newspaper columns. These ranged from laudable expressions of sympathy and of rediscovered community to less laudable, acutely disturbing expressions of rage directed at an invisible enemy.

We witnessed, as well, no shortage of actual violence undertaken against U.S. citizens and against foreign visitors who had the bad luck of simply resembling those who had actually struck the blows.

Here in Columbia, Missouri, a much-beloved citizen--whose person and whose business happened to be named, respectively, Osama and Osama's--bore the brunt of some of this anxious patriotism--a broken storefront window, obscene graffiti and racial slurs hollered by passing idiots.

Our little town was not unique. A Pakistani restaurant in Salt Lake City was set on fire in the night. A mosque in Allentown, Pennsylvania, was the target of a series of bomb threats that kept its community hunkered down anxiously for months. In Mesa, Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, was shot to death as he pulled weeds in the garden outside his Chevron service station. Waquar Hasan, a Pakistani, was murdered in his downtown Dallas business, Mom's Grocery. The list goes on.

In the weeks following 9/11, the FBI opened 325 investigations into what were believed to be 9/11-related hate crimes. The Council on American-Islamic Relations received over 300 reports of harassment and violence during the 96 hours spanning Tuesday, September 11, and Friday, September 14--nearly half the number it had received throughout the entire previous year.

The days following the attacks also delivered to American cars a self-conscious array of bumper stickers. One bumper sticker in particular caught my attention at the time, and has served in the interim to trouble further my sense of our current state of affairs. It was a fairly simple--one might even say a manifestly artless--design: an American flag set in the center of a squat rectangle, and framed by three words: Faith. Hope. Pride.

The word Pride, serving as the pedestal upon which the flag sat, was printed in slightly larger typeface and--perhaps not surprisingly--in bold.

Anyone with so much as a passing knowledge of the New Testament epistles probably could identify the text that had been so glibly revised into this curious trinity of terms.

In the first of his letters to the young church in Corinth, Saint Paul writes:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

The apostle concludes his observations on the weighty matter with these words: "And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

The bumper sticker of our odd moment had effectively replaced the "greatest of these" with what--in a more longstanding, moral economy--would be recognized pretty quickly as a meager virtue at best, and which, not all that long ago, would have been readily recognized as chief among sins, if not their primary cause.

How does such a curious evolution--such a profound slippage--come about? How is an essential sin recuperated into an estimable virtue?

Why are those who speak of the power of pride so confident in their position? And why--one might well ask--are they smiling?

This odd recuperation of pride has become in recent years a commonplace.

Earlier this fall, to make room for a familiar fund-raising scheme, the concrete walkway leading to our campus alumni center was torn up and replaced with a span of red bricks, each bearing the name of an alumni donor. The several sections of red brick have been separated by broad strips of granite, and each of these is engraved with a single word.

For the most part, the glib inscriptions sport laudable sentiments; most are at least benign: Discovery, Diversity, Respect, Responsibility and Tradition. The presence of tradition strikes me as ironic, given that, etched there amid the other stony abstractions, one polished strip of granite offers--boldly and with nary a qualm--Pride.

In an age that so insistently privileges self-help, self-discovery and--most troubling--self-esteem, pride strikes many of us as a likely path to liberation, freeing us from the effects of, say, oppressive cultural biases, from dysfunctional families, and from nagging self-doubt. As far as I can tell, it appears to be our generation's first defense against self-loathing, which is admittedly an even greater sin.

From what I have gathered in recent years--as I have observed the legion advocates of self-esteem performing their earnest interventions--I am pretty sure that regardless of how much we advertise our ostensible pride, we appear mostly to be masking (and not all that convincingly) that same, pervasive self-loathing.

I'm guessing that when we childishly privilege our own self-aggrandizement, and when we--by so doing--cut ourselves off from our communities, both past and present, we are doomed to reinvent a fleet of troubled wheels, and, as the venerable Art Linkletter once observed about children in general, we "say the darnedest things."

It would be good for us to reconnect with our communal past, our shared traditions. It would be good for us to supply to our confusing moment the benefits of an historical sense.

In any case, I'm hoping to grow up some, finally learn a thing or two.