How Vain Is Your Glory?

Having worked through the Deadly Sins, the opposite neuroses, and the Virtues that stand in the Golden Mean between them, it’s time to help the gentle reader put this knowledge to use. As I warned you, there will be a quiz.

Since it’s truth that sets us free, the key to attaining Humility is stark self-honesty. That demands a strong, well-developed conscience. Now, there has been plenty of confusion over the past few decades about what this word even means. To “cafeteria” Catholics, “conscience” is the still, small voice of a Rogerian therapist from Santa Monica, telling you “It’s okay. You’re a good person. The things you want are good. Jesus would want you to have them — and have them more abundantly.” (Even if one of those “things” you want is someone else’s spouse.) On the other side of the barricade, conscience looms like a punitive super-ego, corroding any claim you might stake on earthly happiness, goading you into scruples that lead to despair: “Suffering is holy and redemptive. Jesus suffered. He sent you that migraine for a reason. Offer it up.”

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Now, as etymologists out there might have noticed, conscience includes the root “science,” which even we English majors know has something to do with knowledge. In fact, the best translation of the word means inner, even internalized, knowledge. The best way to grow and tone this muscle is through regular exercise — perhaps through the nightly use of a classic work like Particular Examen: How to Root Out Hidden Faults, by James F. McElhone. Building up the habit of looking at yourself honestly will make it almost easy to see your virtues — if only along the way. It might also make you a little more gracious about accepting compliments, instead of engaging in the Puritanical practice of insisting that the person praising you is deluded or simply lying. The side effect of this atrocious habit is to goad the well-meaning speaker into piling on the praise, almost begging you to accept it. This can be stomach-turning to observe:


“You look fabulous in that outfit!”
“Oh, this old thing? It just shows off how fat I am . . .”
“You are not fat. I’d kill for that figure.”
“Kill what, a buffalo — then eat the whole thing? I look repulsive.”
“You do not!”

And so on, for what seems like hours. A healthy conscience, lean and toned, will prove a much better guide, one that tells you candidly whether to leave the house in those chartreuse Speedos.

Here’s a thought experiment that will hone your skill at sniffing out the “vain” in Vainglory.

You’ve completed some creative or artistic work that has taken you many hours. It could be anything at all: your front yard garden, a picture you’re drawing, a story you’ve written, or those awesome flames you painted around the wheel well of your family’s aging Volvo. A friend comes across your achievement and praises it lavishly. You react as follows:

a) Smile slowly, comparing your own work to that of neighbors, rivals, or enemies. That flower arrangement really does remind one of certain parts of Versailles, now doesn’t it? Your picture recalls Van Gogh, except without the melodrama. Your literary style has all the punch of Hemingway, sans his needless macho posturing. Your car is not only cooler looking than your brother-in-law’s new Lexus, it’s safer in a crash. You know this is true — you looked up the accident statistics, and take partial credit for them, as if you were its Swedish engineer. You preen like the character of Mozart in the movie Amadeus, and feel as if you’re talking to Salieri. “Aw shucks,” you say. “This was easy. You should see what happens when I really make an effort.”

b) Nod earnestly, and explain how much work you put into the project. “This kind of thing doesn’t come naturally to me,” you insist. “Like everything, it’s 10 percent inspiration, and 90 percent perspiration.” Remind the listener how you poured your heart and soul out on the endeavor, and silently compare yourself not to Michelangelo but to the humble, nameless builders of the medieval Gothic cathedrals. Judge the work not by its outcome but by how many Saturday afternoons you poured out completing it, and treasure it for decades regardless of what anyone thinks of the thing. It’s part of you — just like one of your children. So you’re going to cosset and control it, keeping it from any possible harm — just as you do to your children.

c) Look at the finished project alongside your friend, attaining a certain distance from the thing. It’s out in the world now, entirely out of your hands, and you can’t really believe you’re responsible for it. You see some flaws, of course, and they make you wince — but the virtues of the thing seem independent of you. You wonder at it a little, trimming leaves or kicking the tires. Didn’t it somehow always already exist? You feel more as if you’d found the thing, rather than made it. You say, “Thank God it’s finished,” but you’re secretly kind of sad.

d) “That’s very kind of you,” you sigh, and pat your friend on the back. Then you point out all the flaws you fear he might have already noticed, and kick yourself for workmanship that you now see as kind of shoddy. In fact, you really can’t stand having this botched project looked at for very long, so you hustle your friend out of there — and decide not to try this kind of task ever again. Why embarrass yourself that way? Leave this sort of thing to the geniuses or the professionals. (Damn them.) Then you go back to watching The Real Housewives of Yoknapatawpha County.

If you picked:

a) You might just be delusional — a fact you can gauge from the reactions of genuine geniuses, or at any rate of professionals. If your best work makes no impression on them, don’t take refuge in reading old, hostile reviews of Beethoven’s symphonies. Chances are, you really do suck. On the other hand, perhaps you are some sort of genius. The Macarthur Foundation has been pestering you for years, but you won’t return their calls. You walked offstage from Carnegie Hall in a huff, rejected the Nobel Prize in French (just like Sartre), and put the poet laureate job on hold till you’re finished the score of your next oratorio. And the flames on that there Volvo really could make the cover of Car and Driver.

If any of that is true, or even if you really do have some overpowering talent that takes folks’ breath away . . . so what? Will any of that get you into heaven? Not at this rate, anyway. Think hard about how little you did to earn your gifts — which is, come to think of it, the reason we call them “gifts.” It’s not like you sat in the womb and listed them in some kind of registry. And just try exchanging them for something practical, like a blender. It’s almost as if they weren’t really yours.

b) You’re suffering from the Puritan form of Vainglory, which values good, honest sweat over dodgy, papist vagaries like “inspiration.” You’re tacitly accepting here Karl Marx’s “labor theory of value,” which prices an item based purely on how hard and long some guy had to work to make it. So a laptop crafted by a recluse alone in his basement, in his underwear, is much more valuable than one produced efficiently by engineers and robots (never mind how well the laptop works).

c) You may have attained the healthy attitude that marks a humble, talented craftsman. The fact that you feel a distance from the thing made suggests that you’re aware of exactly how much (or how little) you personally contributed — on top of all the natural Goodness you found from the hand of God, just lying around for you to use it. You realize that “creation” for anyone under the sun is really just a matter of creative rearrangement, and your genuine achievements aren’t likely to turn your head — for instance, by convincing you that now you’re an expert on public policy, qualified to testify before congressional committees on global warming, the safety of vaccination, or the optimal budgetary appropriation for government support of the arts.

d) You’re sounding like the kind of person who put the “serf” in “servile.” Consider how the self-flagellation in which you’re in the habit of engaging keeps the focus on yourself. Instead of looking at the work that you’ve accomplished, and giving God the proper credit, you’re fixed on its flaws and how you’re to blame for them. Preoccupation with yourself, even if you’re only beating yourself up, is still a devil’s trap, and it leads to a crushing sense of futility, to resentment, even to Envy. Step back and try to be grateful to God you didn’t screw up even worse than you did. Then notice the good in what you made. If you have to, pretend it was made by somebody else — let’s say by your friend. Would you really judge it this harshly? Now pretend you’re a friend to yourself.

And now, to the solution: If you’re shadowboxing with fantasies about the extent of your own attainments, or tempted to give yourself credit for things that you got handed on a platter, it’s critical that you shift the focus of your thoughts outward instead of inward. You can start by engaging delusional ideas — for instance, that you are Mozart — with cold compresses of reality. But move quickly on to thinking of God rather than man.

Whatever it is you’re good at, try doing the part you find hardest and dullest. Keep doing it till you’re exhausted — and remember that God finds it easy. So do plenty of people whose skills are different from your own. And that’s okay. It’s not about you.

If you’re a musician, look into the mathematical roots of music theory, and consider how they reflect the divine order of the cosmos. A gardener? Dig into some technical works of botany, treating them as lectio divina. Allow yourself to be staggered at Creation’s lavish complexity, and grateful that you can play a part in tending it. A car buff? Try slogging through a freshman textbook on mechanical engineering. And so on.

You might also benefit from a specialized form of the examination of conscience. Make a list of the skills or attainments you’re proudest of. (This part should be fun.) In a notebook, put each one at the head of a blank page. For each one, write down not how good or great you are, but how you got that way: What qualities were you born with, and from whom do you think you inherited them? What teachers were important to you, and what did you learn from each? What books did you read, what mistakes did you make, and how many times did you earn rejection? To whom are you most grateful?

Conversely, if you find to your surprise that you have been sniveling, it’s time to tote up, in the same kind of notebook — make it a nice, leather one, and use a fancy pen — the activities that you find easy, and even fun. Through which of them have you given pleasure to other people? (Keep it clean here, folks.) Are there talents God has given you that somehow ended up getting buried? Remember how good you were at calligraphy, back in grade school? Could you bone up on that again, and volunteer to write invitations for charity fundraisers? Could you practice and sing a little better in church? Or, at any rate, a little louder? What gifts could you dig up and put in the sunlight? That’s the best way, really the only way, of writing a “thank you” card to the beloved Friend who gave them.



  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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