Several summers ago, I started training with my running buddy. She was entering high school and was growing in the sport. I had been running for years but had lost much of the drive that animated my early days of running. That summer, we were buoyed by our enthusiasm for the sport and were edified by a shared commitment to work hard. I watched as she grew stronger almost daily, and I grew stronger, too. After workouts we would often exclaim, “I can’t believe we just did that!” We were elated to see improvements and wanted to get the best out of ourselves.
Pride and Superbia
There is a certain kind of pride which is not a vice. It is a feeling of pleasure in a job well done, or satisfaction with one’s own good choices. We can experience it toward ourselves, the way my running buddy and I did that summer, or toward others, the way parents often do toward their children. Maybe pride is not the best word for this feeling, but it is the word we often use.
However, there is a second kind of pride that is a vice. It is destabilizing and damaging to our communities, and it makes us less teachable. It is called superbia—arrogance, or the vice of pride—and it is everywhere in competitive sports.
If you spend enough time around competitive athletics, you will have experienced the vice of pride, or superbia. It is an inordinate desire for one’s own excellence, or an inflated sense of self (1). Likely, you will have experienced superbia so much that you almost fail to notice it anymore. Athletics, in broad strokes, has a culture of bragging and self-aggrandizement, which is sometimes called “marketing” and is other times disguised as self-belief. It often seems like athletic social media is a bunch of people shouting their achievements past each other, bragging in direct or subtle ways, and, admittedly, this is probably part of what we enjoy about sports—the self-congratulatory brazenness of it all. It is entertaining.
But pride need not be a sign of big aspirations, or of a great athlete. I have met extraordinarily gifted athletes who are forgetful of their own accomplishments, who lose graciously, and who stand at the finish lines of races and sincerely congratulate their competitors. I have also met middle schoolers of average talent with such big heads that it is hard for them to re-enter the school bus on the way home from track meets. You can aspire greatly while holding your achievements lightly. You can also be sub-par or average yet driven by conceit.
Why Choose Humility?
But if pride in an athlete can be entertaining to watch, why should we want athletes to be humble?
1. Incurvatus In Se.
There is an expression in Latin—homo incurvatus in se—humanity as ‘curved in on itself.’ This was a phrase coined by Martin Luther, which captures what we act like when we build our lives around our pride. We ‘turn in on ourselves’ like human commas, becoming so preoccupied with our own desires and interests that we are unable to see anything past them.
Obviously, Luther was not speaking literally when he introduced the phrase, such that we all transform into hunchbacks. (Although, this would make the error really easy to spot.) But there is truth to the idea that our pride crowds out the possibility of a life spent looking outward—seeing and loving the people around you, responding to their needs, and considering ideas other than your own. If you are proud, your self-importance curves you inward—incurvatus in se.
So, the first reason to address your pride is this: Having an inflated sense of self closes you off from the richness of life beyond yourself and your accomplishments. For runners, who profess to value community, pride impedes us from genuinely supporting one another.
2. Pride Makes You Less Teachable.
In elementary school, I would show my parents my essays, and if they located mistakes or suggested changes, I would cry. I basically just wanted them to tell me my essays were already good. (They were not good.) If I had more humility, I would have been better positioned to accept critiques and to profit from their help. The same is true of running. Nothing shuts the door on constructive feedback quite like pride. A proud person finds her personal frailties unbearable.
3. Sports Form Character.
People love to talk about the character-forming potential of athletics when it concerns good character traits, like perseverance, courage, and integrity. But if we are willing to believe that athletics is a good avenue to practice the virtues, we should consider the vices—such as pride—that are also reinforced in sports. The qualities we practice in running are bound to appear in other areas of our lives and relationships.
For pride, character formation is a particularly pressing point for two reasons. First, the Scholastic tradition describes pride as the root of all the other vices (2). If you have an inflated sense of self, this gives way to other defects of character—such as vanity, envy, and sloth. In guarding against pride, such as by practicing humility, you become less vulnerable to a whole host of bad qualities. Second, pride justifies a number of ills we are currently trying to address as a society, such as prejudice against those who are different from us. Growing in humility positions you to listen better and see the value of other people. It makes you more teachable and less ‘curved in on yourself.’
Admittedly, it is plausible to think that superbia has driven some great performances. It would be super motivating to step on the starting line of a race and to have your value wrapped up in how you perform, or to be governed by an outsized preoccupation with your own success. Superbia may sometimes be performance-enhancing while we are in our sneakers, and as I said earlier, it can be entertaining to watch. But we wear other shoes. We are not just runners, and superbia is not a quality we want in the rest of our lives, even if it were to profit us narrowly in terms of performance outcomes.
Call for Comments
- Have you at some point felt superbia in yourself and your athletics? Would you be willing to share an example of when you identified this in yourself?
- And, have you also felt a more natural and healthy pride? How do the two differ for you, and how are you able to tell what is a healthy versus unhealthy pride?
- Thomas Aquinas. Summa TheologiaeII.162.2.
- Thomas Aquinas. Summa TheologiaeII.162.2.