When Being Right is Wrong: The Deadly Sin of Pride

There is a little poem by e.e.cummings which contains a line, “even on a sunday may I be wrong, for whenever men are right they are not young.” The poet is being paradoxically playful to make a point. When we are always right about everything we have not only lost the innocence of youth, but we are also guilty of the most basic sin of all, the deadly sin of pride. Pride is best understood as being right at all costs.

Some of the problems we think of as pride are really the symptoms of pride. We consider an arrogant person to be proud, but arrogance is one of the outward signs of pride. A person who displays his achievement or wealth, struts his good looks or brags about his victories is displaying the symptoms of pride, but pride is a much deeper problem and its symptoms can be seen in many other less obvious ways. A person who insists on arguing his point and will not listen to anyone else is proud. A person who simply assumes that he is right in his opinions is proud even though he may not strut or be arrogant. A person who can never be corrected, who is always defensive, who always has an excuse or always blames another person is proud because they cannot be wrong. Ever. At all.

In religious circles a person who is self righteous is proud. Now it gets tricky because a person who appears very humble and pious might, beneath the surface, be very proud of their piety and religious knowledge. At this point we have to laugh at ourselves. “What? You mean I am proud of being humble?” It’s true, some of the most incorrigibly proud people appear to be self effacing, obedient and pious souls.

This is why pride is so deadly, because it is the one sin that hides itself so effectively. The proud person, by very definition, does not realize he is proud. If he realized he was proud he would repent, but it is pride which keeps him from seeing that he is wrong or sinful in any way. Pride is a very difficult sin to do anything about because the proud person will even go so far as to admit that he is proud, and that makes him even more “right” than he was before!

What a subtle, lying, deceitful and insidious sin pride is! No wonder it is called “the first sin”. No wonder it is the first and most terrible sin of Satan who is the Father of Lies. Is pride deadly? Yes. It is deadly like a poisoned apple. It is deadly like a smiling murderer. Pride kills because the proud person cannot stand others who disagree. Not only does the proud person have to be right, but as their pride grows they must also destroy everyone else who is wrong. They cannot allow an enemy to remain. The proud person may not kill literally, but they kill reputations through gossip and detraction. They kill good will through hatred and recrimination. They kill charity through revenge and nursing a grudge. They kill friendship through arrogance, indifference to others and lack of compassion.

Humility counters pride. The word “humility” is derived from the same root as humor and “humus” which means “earth.” A humble person is down to earth. A humble person has a good sense of humor. Most of all, the humble person knows his failures, faults and foibles. He knows himself and can laugh at himself. e.e.cummings ends the poem by saying ruefully, “there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail, pulling all the sky over him with one smile.”

Editor’s note: This is the final part in an eight part series exploring the Seven Deadly Sins. Please read previous articles here to learn about each of the Seven Deadly Sins. 

Fr. Dwight Longenecker


Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion—Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. He blogs at Standing on My Head. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at www.dwightlongenecker.com

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  • kirk

    Lord have mercy! I see myself in some of that. Thank you for that invisible mirror that shines through your column. I think there’s a verse in Proverbs that says, “I’ll bring up to your face the sins you have committed.” That’s not an exact quote since I can’t remember the whole of it, but it fits here.

  • Thanks‚ Fr. Dwight for this article. Please allow me share to the readers this favourite quote of mine by Sainte-Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus et de la Sainte-Face: “To humble ourselves, to suffer our imperfections with patience, this is true sanctity, the source of peace.”

  • Marjorie

    Thank you for that beautiful article, Fr Longenecker.

    Here is something well-known to add on. My ‘humble’ contribution, from St Josemaria.

    “Allow me to remind you that among other evident signs of a lack of humility are:

    —Thinking that what you do or say is better than what others do or say;

    —Always wanting to get your own way;

    —Arguing when you are not right or — when you are — insisting stubbornly or with bad manners;

    —Giving your opinion without being asked for it, when charity does not demand you to do so;

    —Despising the point of view of others;

    —Not being aware that all the gifts and qualities you have are on loan;

    —Not acknowledging that you are unworthy of all honour or esteem, even the ground you are treading on or the things you own;

    —Mentioning yourself as an example in conversation;

    —Speaking badly about yourself, so that they may form a good opinion of you, or contradict you;

    —Making excuses when rebuked;

    —Hiding some humiliating faults from your director, so that he may not lose the good opinion he has of you;

    —Hearing praise with satisfaction, or being glad that others have spoken well of you;

    —Being hurt that others are held in greater esteem than you;

    —Refusing to carry out menial tasks;

    —Seeking or wanting to be singled out;

    —Letting drop words of self-praise in conversation, or words that might show your honesty, your wit or skill, your professional prestige…;

    —Being ashamed of not having certain possessions…

    St. Josemaria Escriva

    (Furrow, no. 263)http://www.stjosemaria.org/articles/362-humility-path-of-true-love

  • In the doctrine of the Little Way‚ this is how the great and humble Little Flower understood it and teaches us how to be humble of heart.

    She does not know whether she is humble but to her‚ humility is truth as she was able to see the truth in all of things. To be humble is to accept our state of wretchedness and imperfection (“failures, faults and foibles”), to delight in those imperfections and—in the humiliations borne out by those imperfections (constant practice of humility) and to recognise the need for God’s help‚ having absolute confidence in His love and mercy. I hope this helps.