What Is Arrogance?

Everything is pink. I mean everything is every shade of pink imaginable. You don’t know pink until you have been here. A few weeks ago, students hung dark fuchsia curtains around the door. Then, through the open door, I see the soft pink walls I love, and standing there behind her desk, yes, in an elegant pink top, is the pretty much always-ON Dr. Martha Shaw.

If she is not directing the Shorter University Chorale or the Spivey Hall Children’s Choir (which, btw, she founded) or teaching music or driving somewhere to do a concert or attending a student’s or colleague’s concert or leading a conductor’s workshop or traveling to Italy to direct the Chorale in the Vatican or traveling to Spain with the Chorale or going to China with the Spivey Hall Children’s Choir, then Dr. Shaw is making a CD or editing a CD or publishing a CD of choral music.

I also happen to know that in the past one of her activities included painting green Ep Sig shamrocks on the (then) Shorter College campus. (I can show you where they are, too.) She is also known to make great scones and great coffee, and she is generous in sending friends flowers. I can attest to that myself.

(Martha told me once a friend of hers described her as having two buttons—an ON button and an OFF button, adding, “But, Martha, you never use the OFF.” In this respect, Martha and I favor each other, and I’ve always said she is my older sister I never had.)

This day, we do our hurry-up Stehcafé version of talking, sometimes necessary when she’s going in one direction and I in the other. She’s putting on, yes, dark pink lipstick, getting ready to dash out to an appointment, as I stand on the other side of her desk; and in the middle of a conversation about 100 things, she says (somehow) through lipstick application, “My children and I’ve been discussing what arrogance is.”

We got into this conversation because we’d just finished talking about a wonderful high school senior whom we both know. In fact, I’d sprinted over the front circle’s chisled paving stones to Martha’s office to tell her good news about this senior who epitomizes the non-arrogant teenager uniquely accomplished character-wise, scholastically, musically, and athletically. I wanted to share with Martha that he had just been awarded a Duke Scholarship to Furman University, full tuition for four years. He’s an Eagle Scout with a nearly 4.0 GPA in college-prep courses, he also plays the piano well, he’s Captain of the swim team, and he has a heart for helping out others less fortunate than he, and does so, too, regularly.

I’m beside myself with joy for him. He’s so well-deserving.

I add, “And, Martha, best of all, he’s modest.”

She says, “I know,” then pulls out a recent photo of the “kids” in her Spivey Hall Children’s Choir, pointing out to me those who will be matriculating to Shorter next year (in particular one English major, yay!), and, since I have had occasion to talk with some of these students, I say, “They’re so talented, and so modest.”

Martha says, “Yes, we like our talented people that way.”

That’s how arrogance comes up. She tells me she and her Spivey Hall students have been discussing what arrogance is and how it can be both obvious in some cases and insidious in others.

I start thinking how I would define arrogance, and quickly realize I can’t. I find it easier to recognize than to define, so I admit to Martha, “I don’t know what the etymology of arrogance is,” and Martha says, “You’ll have to write a blog about it.”

So here it is, Martha.

Someone very wise once told me that the stick of self-absorption has two ends, arrogance and self-loathing.

Since I’ve spent most of my life on the self-loathing end of the self-absorption stick, I find that entrenched, dense, and seemingly unexamined arrogance is repulsive; well, it’s actually boring (narcissism is not known to be a scintillating conversation-starter); however, on the other hand, self-loathing (speaking from experience) is just as much of a trap as arrogance, and equally boring to one’s self and to others.

Being human is a tricky business, really.

Growing up, we get handed so many seemingly mixed messages. We’re told, “Be confident!” We’re told, “Be humble!” We’re told, “You must have self-esteem!” We’re told, “Don’t focus on yourself so much!”

Often it does seem that we either overestimate ourselves or underestimate ourselves. I love me; I love me not. I love me; I love me not. We pull the petals on the daisy of our souls and wonder which one it is today. This hour. This second.

Both extremes indicate a lack of self-knowledge. What an ongoing, non-stop process self-knowledge is, or else we perish—it’s a class with no final exam, unless death is considered; a course with no textbook, unless the Psalms are reckoned into the day; and a subject with no teacher, unless, like me, you look to Jesus to learn more about the mystery of Love, which is, perhaps, the ultimate self-knowledge.

I can’t understand concepts unless I know what soil the words that symbolize them rest in. So I turn to etymologies, or word histories, a lot. The etymologies of arrogance and of loathe make pictures in my mind that help me understand my soul better.

The etymology of arrogance, for example, reminds me of the challenges of parenting. We spend a lot of our energy reprimanding our children, saying: “Don’t say, ‘Gimme!’ all the time!”

There’s a wonderful Berenstain Bears book in which Brother and Sister Bear learn not to have a case of the “gimmes” each time their grandparents come over to visit them. Instead of greeting their grandparents at the door with a hug, they ask, “What’d you bring us? Gimme! Gimme!”

But, really, the irony is that we all grow taller, get older, and find gray hair on our heads one day, but remain somewhere deep inside “Gimme!”-children in our souls.

We have notions of what we want to “get” from life. We learn to say “Gimme!” in increasingly more “sophisticated” ways.

A friend of mine once said to me, “We’re all selfish. It’s just that some of us learn how to be selfish in more socially accepted ways.”

So, we all have ideas about how our lives and our every day should go, and when life disappoints us or doesn’t give us the attention we want, we usually get upset. Who hasn’t walked that path? I think that maturing is learning to appreciate the simplest of blessings and to see that simple blessings are NOT small but are HUGE in the scheme of happiness and peace!

We are given so much each day.

To see the sky is NOT a small blessing. To hear birds chirping is NOT a small blessing. To have a good friend such as Martha Shaw is NOT a small blessing. To teach students is NOT a small blessing. To wake up each day with a kind, loyal, interested, smart husband who is also a great father to our two children is NOT a small blessing!

Arrogance is rooted in the Latin word for “to ask.” It comes from the Latin rogare, which literally means, “to stretch out the hand.” I can picture that alright. That’s the “Gimme!” part of arrogance. The ar- prefix is really ad- for “to,” so truly arrogance means, “GIVE THAT TO ME!” We’re asking for special rights.

We’re demanding, requesting, requiring, and stretching out our hands to receive WHAT WE DEMAND RIGHT NOW. That’s arrogance.

The image of arrogance is a child’s reaching out and tugging on a parent’s shirt, demanding a new toy after opening all of his or her presents on Christmas day.

Arrogance also reminds me of a Frank Sinatra song: “I did it my way,” because arrogance has within its etymological roots the notion that I’m going “to move in a straight line,” I’m going “to direct” my own life completely, I’m going “to control” my day, and I’m going “to rule” my world. Yes, I will.

There is no flexibility in arrogance. It has the straight edge of an unbending ruler along which the world is measured by self-absorbed values.

After all, ruler, regina, rex, rule, regal, and right are all rooted in the same Latin word regere, for “to move in a straight line, to direct, to control, and to rule.”

Isn’t this the description of most two-year-olds? And of many “grownups”? The difference is that most thwarted-in-what-they-want grownup-type people won’t hold their breath until their wrinkling faces go blue. (I don’t usually.)

(Okay, it must be admitted that this mindset, at various strengths, is of epidemic proportions among us human beings. I wake up with it each day. We all want our days to go “right.” Some days I’m better able to let go of my white-knuckled grip on my own perspective, and those are beautiful, joyful days; also, at fifty I have certainly at least learned that there’s no such thing as an interruption, just different things and people inserting themselves into my day at unexpected times. I’ve also learned to turn my phone off—ha!)

A gentle wanting-things-to-go-right isn’t meant here, but that all-consuming IT-HAS-TO-BE-MY-WAY sense that belongs to narcissism, perhaps the darkest form of arrogance that blinds us to the existence of anyone else in this world.

The theme song of our human arrogance might be, “You’re so vain—I bet you think this song is about you. Don’t you!” Or, “I’m so vain—I always think this song is about me!”

On the other side of self-absorption, opposite arrogance, we have self-loathing; and it is rather comforting to know that loathing is a very old word. People have been hating themselves (well, and therefore others) for a very long time, AND so I’m not at all alone in this difficulty. Loathing’s roots are in Old English soil, from laðian, for “to hate.”

From there, the deeper roots get quite interesting. Loathing and laðian are related to the modern German word, Leid, for “sorrow, pain.”

You know, in Germany you say, “Es tut mir leid,” when you’ve hurt someone’s feelings and want to say, “Sorry.” It means, “What I did makes me feel pain [Leid].”

We often find that self-awareness is painful, and when it gets out-of-hand or when we have been hurt by others, that pain can run amuck. Much of my life has been spent (and will be spent) learning how to handle pain graciously. (I don’t handle pain graciously. Learning to handle pain graciously is the point, you see. That’s where God comes in.)

Loathing’s deepest roots are obscure, but there is a keen possibility that they ultimately come to rest in a simple Old English interjection, La! for “Oh!”

It is definitely reminiscent of “Oh woe is me!”

My hardest days spent in self-loathing saw much of that. The image I see with self-loathing is one of beating my own breast, saying, “Oh woe is me!” It is a cry filled with self-pity and with self-hatred.

Self-loathing is not to be confused with godly sorrow, which is the grace that always helps me recognize, confess, and grow when I’ve made mistakes or have sinned or have finally recognized genuine self-blindness. It’s that half-second of daylight when everything is dark, and I can only muster the smallest cry that suffices in the world of divine love: “Help me, God!” Sometimes it’s only, “HELP!”

The theme songs for self-loathing could be “Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen,” along with Kurt Cobain’s “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.”

It seems a worthwhile notion to become friends with one’s self. As I wake up each day to a new sun (meaning, as I get older), I want to learn how to become best friends with my self. It’s a fairly new concept for me.

This metamorphosis (ongoing) can (continue to) happen if I remain best friends with Christ and pay attention to his awesome Self. This means that I love prayer and solitude and the Bible and other books written by people who were and/or are best friends with God, and it also means that I love others and that I also love being kind and forgiving.

It also means that when I don’t love any of these things or any of these people (including my own self), that I receive the grace and have given to me the gift of the grace to ask for the grace to revert to that tiniest of prayers, “Help me, God, love again!”

It’s a tricky business to be a human being.

That’s why I turned to God.

I became a Christian when I was only seven precisely because I knew even then that I needed to change (and change quick). I’d heard the preacher say that Jesus could help me do just that. I started this invisible friendship with God because I’d heard that it could transform me.

At fifty, I can say that, though change has been and remains glacial slow, owing to my human clay feet, my friendship with God has changed me and still does change my stubborn, hard heart. It’s an adventure!

The benefits are that I will have a growing healthy self-image, love for my self, love for others, and plenty of love for God underwriting it all.

Also, I will be flexible, increasingly so.

Christianity in its beginnings focuses on the “now”—Jesus says notice how the flowers don’t worry about food and clothing and yet are so beautiful, and early Christianity also focuses on the “process”—Jesus says that he has come to give us abundant life (not arrogant, self-loathing lives); therefore, we can all hope (and certainly pray) that arrogance, narcissism, self-loathing, and anti-loving behavior in general can be changed.

I mean one person at a time. I mean starting in me.

I for one believe in transformation, since Christ lives in me and is my Friend.

I want to have the outlook that my son, John, has. On one occasion when I said to him, “John, you’re so handsome and so smart,” he answered without hesitating, barely looking up from his Legos he was building, to say, “I know, Mommy.”

Then he went on playing, not missing a beat. Nor did he dwell on that thought and make it overlarge in his head. He didn’t need to. He trusts me. He knows I have been, am, and will be there for him.

I thought, My son is confident in my love, and I’m just a human mother, prone to forgetting things and getting lost without a GPS in the car. How much more can I be confident in God’s perfect, all-forgiving, all-knowing, never-forgetting, always finding-me divine love? I am God’s daughter. God loves me.

I will spend the rest of my days discovering God’s love for me.

I will spend them learning to let go of my worries and my arrogance and my self-loathing and my self-absorption, discovering more and more new ways to accept God’s endless and unending love.

Won’t that be fun!


About Carmen

I teach English at Shorter College in beautiful Rome, Georgia.
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3 Responses to What Is Arrogance?

  1. Melanie Reese says:

    Loved this, Carmen! A good word for me today….. :-)

  2. Melanie Reese says:

    Oh, yes…..Has Dr. Shaw ever heard you sing the Lord’s Prayer in Old English? Just sayin’…..

  3. Kaitlyn Adams says:

    Wow! Incredible post, ms. Butcher! :) (It’s me again, Kaitlyn Adams… from Dr. Shaw’s children’s choir) Her talk on arrogance was incredibly encouraging for me especially. What is it with arrogant people? Why does it make them feel better? I love her tips each week and your post was amazing!

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog! :) It’s been encouraging to read!


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