Friday, 30 November 2007

On pride

This week I was going to write something about teddy bears and the need to understand the mindset of very different cultures. Having taught for eight years in a culture which was at least partially Islamic I think I have something to offer in the current dispute. However these are sensitive times and I think it will probably wait. Mind you, I wouldn’t mind having my books publicly burnt in Khartoum, particularly if a) they had paid for them and b) I had good press coverage.

The real reason for the shift of topic is that I had a nice surprise this morning which has made me consider an old concern: the topic of pride. I was in early at college this morning but really was not feeling very excited about life; the weather was grey, the sky thick with clouds full of rain and I felt certain I was about to come down with ‘flu. Then I was suddenly summoned to the Principal’s office. I should explain that we don’t see an awful lot of the Principal, largely because he spends a lot of his time dealing with the impenetrable Welsh educational bureaucracy 60 miles away in Cardiff; so it was not a trivial summons. I won’t say my entire life flashed before me but it did cross my mind that December was not a good time to be made redundant.

I had no need to be concerned. On the contrary, it soon emerged that a student I had taught for the last two years had got the highest mark nationally at A-level in Geology. He got a book prize, and as his teacher, I got a Fellowship of the Geological Society for a year. Anyway, Chris Jones, currently at Emanuel College Cambridge reading Natural Sciences, is a great lad who probably could have got it just by reading the syllabus and teaching himself. I wouldn’t be surprised if he occasionally reads this blog (he was very nice about the Lamb Among the Stars books even if he doesn’t share the Christian viewpoint) and he utterly deserves the award.

Now I mention this here because it raises a question that a member of church raised with me the other week: when if ever is it right to be proud? Frankly, I found this a difficult question then and I find it difficult now. When I first became a Christian I imbibed greatly of the truth that I was a miserable worm and that pride was the greatest of all sins. I developed remarkable skills at understating natural abilities and perfecting what I now think is probably a superficial humility. But ought we treat all awards as worthless baubles, as empty and vain gestures in this brief life? I have no doubt the Puritans would have said so. I don’t need them to know that there is a great deal of pride that is clearly wrong. Any sort of superiority that tries to demonstrate you are better than someone else is sinful. But is it totally wrong for instance for a parent to take pleasure in a son’s musical achievement or a daughter’s sporting triumph? Is it utterly appalling to take pleasure in some event that vindicates a tough or painful decision you have made?

It seems to me that these are difficult areas. Obviously, all that we have is by grace and we need to realise that in one sense we have nothing to be proud of. But beyond this isn't there a sense in which we can take pride in an achievement? I wonder whether part of the problem is that the English word pride is very broad and covers a range of things extending all the way from innocent pleasure in a football team’s performance to wholesale and unacceptable boasting. I have to say I was jolly pleased about this morning’s news but my main pleasure lay in the regions of relief and possibly vindication. In the three years that I have been teaching, I have not found it very easy and have frequently felt I was something of a fraud. I guess this morning I finally felt that actually I might be doing a decent job.

Anyway I’m sure I’m not alone with the problem of pride. What I’d love is a simple memorable and permanently usable rule to distinguish ‘good pride’ from ‘bad pride’. Any ideas? In the meantime, I shall with, thanks to God, quietly stick FGS after my name!

Have a good week,