To get wisdom is better than gold;
To choose understanding is better than silver.
Pride goes before destruction,
And a haughty spirit before a fall.
I lifted those words from Proverbs in the Bible, and I heard them first in church. I know churches don’t provide perfect wisdom, but some passages in Proverbs teach simple truths that glow in repetition.
I’ve needed a place where decent people gather since I was a teenager, and the church was that place. It was the church that held my hand, signed necessary papers, and ordained me on a May afternoon with a party. It was also a place where I learned ancient wisdom from sacred literature like Proverbs. As I look around now, I think we need more wisdom in the world. “To get wisdom,” says the writer of Proverbs, “is better than gold.”
The heart of that wisdom in Proverbs is in the warning about pride: “A haughty spirit goes before a fall.” I envision that ‘fall’ as collapse, failure. Our pride will take us there because we humans love to feel important — to seem special — and we drive ourselves toward that fall. For example, we white folk treasure our status with a “haughty spirit,” and that pride has brought suffering to untold numbers of people. I can only hope that we heal that divide before our fall.
My own haughty pride blossoms everywhere in such things as my love of praise, my longing for first place and an appreciative audience. The grace of humility is smothered by such entitled pride.
Shakespeare centered some of his tragedies, and his histories, on that lesson from Proverbs. His King Lear died estranged from his daughter because he was too full of pride to know how much she loved him. “I am a very foolish, fond old man,” he realizes. In Shelley’s poem the statue of the haughty Ozymandias, King of Kings, is only “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” standing in the desert, an abandoned relic of a haughty king.
Haughty prideful spirits are evident in folks like Donald Trump, who buys part of a beautiful seacoast of Scotland over the protests of the people who live there, and plans his golf course, putting his own desires ahead of decency. “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches,” seems an appropriate reminder for him.
I’m troubled, too, by haughty preachers inour churches, where I once stood in a pulpit. Some self-promoting preachers have enough pride to fill all the wasted deserts with broken statues. They don’t speak words of humility Jesus might have spoken, but, to quote Proverbs, they speak “the way of fools.”
Do our churches move us toward humility? I can’t say, but when people gather and call upon God I think a spiritual presence can be awakened, and a holy presence could provide the energy needed for a renewal of kindness. For dedicated people, there’s a lot of good work to do: speaking truth to power, resisting religion in our schools, standing for fairness to people of all sexual orientations, and speaking up for our planet. Such a moral center “is better than silver.”
Of course there are wise, golden leaders among us still. I encounter them everywhere. They are teaching and writing and singing the truth. I find humility and wisdom in teachers like Jon Mecham, in novelists like Louise Penny, and in essayists like Sarah Vowell, a funny truth-seeker. I learn wisdom from them and others, and from sacred literature, too. As a writer I can’t do better than, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold.”
If you’ve known humble people, you don’t forget them. They never threaten you, or want what you have — your good looks, your snazzy car. They let you go first. They speak words of praise to lift your spirits. They take you seriously and respect your ideas. They admit their mistakes. I love the scene in Downton Abbey when as the Countess Maggie Smith stepped aside and allowed a servant to take first prize at the flower show. An unforgettable moment of humility for a haughty woman.
To you who are trying to be humble, I wish I could offer rewards: an afterlife in the bosom of Abraham, a star in your heavenly crown, a journey to God when the Rapture comes. But I can’t offer those prizes. I don’t believe in those religious rewards. I can offer, though, two other compensations for the humble spirit: growth of the soul toward serenity, and a life well lived.
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.