Chaplain’s Corner: The Arrogance of Power, The Power of Humility

Chaplain's Corner
Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California

In today's world who has not confronted the 'arrogance of power?' At first it might be easy to think that only those who hold positions of wealth or authority would be candidates to wield power. While it is true that such individuals may be in an opportune setting to display self-serving, controlling actions, even individuals who are not high on the economic, political or social status scales can exert unwarranted, overbearing power.

I am reminded of an example discussed in a graduate psychology course in New York City. A well-dressed, stockbroker-looking executive, somewhat rushed, has put a bill in a subway token window booth just as a subway train on its way to the Wall Street Station has opened its doors merely a few feet away, opposite, and in sight of the booth and the entry turn-style. Objectively there is more than enough time for the token clerk to give the passenger the token and change so that he would be able to catch the train. The clerk stalls, moves his hands appearing to sort change in front of him, and just as the subway doors are closing hands over token and change, with an obvious smirk on his face implying: "I got you."

This may remind readers of the ancient Greek notion of pride (hubris). Hubris motivates someone to use, intentionally, any means, even aggression, to degrade or humiliate others. In this case, the action of the subway clerk was not outright violence but what would be termed in psychology, passive aggression. None the less, it can easily be seen as a display of arrogant power. The Bhagavad-Gita (16: 18) describes pride this way: "Egotistical, violent, arrogant, lustful, angry, envious of everyone, they abuse my presence within their own bodies and in the bodies of others."

I would suggest that hubris is fed by narcissism, a sense of inflated self-focus and self-worth that blinds us to the feelings and needs of others. The ancient Hebrews knew this. In the Book of Proverbs (15: 18) we read: "Pride goeth before destruction."

One way to heal this worldwide psycho-spiritual disease is to acquire the virtue of humility. Also in the book of Proverbs (11: 2) we find: "…but where humility is, there also is wisdom." The spiritual wisdom of the great Father of the Eastern Church St. Isaac of Syria put it this way: "The man who has reached the knowledge of the extent of his own weakness has reached perfect humility."i This happens when we have developed an awareness of the passions that beset us, in this case, pride or hubris and the untoward actions that follow.

An untoward action that might follow, for victims, could a triggered by the passion of wanting to get even Thus, both perpetrators and victims, if they seek the power of humility, might well take seriously Jesus’ instruction: "...how canst thou say to thy brother: Brother, let me pull the mote out of thy eye, when thou thyself seest not the beam in thy own eye? Hypocrite, cast first the beam out of thy own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to take out the mote from thy brother's eye." (Lk 6: 22).

ENDNOTES

i Holy Transfiguration Monastery. (ed., trans.). (2011). The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (revised, 2nd edition). Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery.

Date posted: March 2, 2013