On Wednesdays we have been going through the chapters of my new book Idol Thoughts, exploring the eight traditional logismoi, or thoughts, that take us away from God. The list came down to us in the West as the seven deadly sins, but I prefer to talk about the older list and the language of thoughts. Before we actually launch into sinful actions, it is our prior thought patterns that get us into trouble, right?
One reason I like the older list is because of today’s thought, which doesn’t appear on the list of seven. This is the thought of vainglory. Gregory the Great, who gave us the list as we know it, collapsed vainglory into pride, but the two actually are different things, and the difference is instructive.
Vainglory is the idea that happiness lies in the good opinion of other people. Pride couldn’t care less about other people and what they think, since they are inferior beings, but vainglory cares intensely about such matters. What matters with vainglory is not what you are or what you do, but what people think about what you are and do.
Vainglory has many manifestations. There is the more obvious form of it—attention seeking, spotlight hogging, the person who needs to be ‘the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral’. There is the desperate hunger to be popular, to be liked, to be well thought of—in my own country of Canada this is a major factor in the pressure to either not hold or at the very least not express unpopular political opinions. Indeed, much evil goes unchecked in the world because of this form of vainglory—we just want everyone to like us.
In personal relationships, there is the inordinate desire to be loved, to have that special person look at us in that special way—again, the important thing is not our being or our deeds, but the good regard of the other. How many women, in particular (and sometimes men, too) sacrifice their true selves, their beliefs, their principles, because of that need for love?
And then there is the burning desire to have one’s contributions acknowledged, one’s gifts appreciated, one’s work valued. The need to be thanked. The need to not just do what is right but to have someone notice that we are doing what is right and say ‘Hey, good job, you! You are doing what is right! Kudos to you!’
And then, when that thanks, that little bit of attention or appreciation is not there—rage. Bitterness of spirit (those bastards didn’t even say thank you, after all I did for them!), withdrawing into self-pity, and so forth.
Or, if we are given that appreciation, we begin to crave it more than we want to simply do what is right and good. And we start to tailor our good deeds towards that end. Playing to the crowd, pandering. One of the most serious manifestations of this is the popular preacher, teacher, or writer who may at first have been successful because he was writing and delivering a message he believed in, that meant something to him, and strove to do it well for the sake of the message.
But the applause of the crowd is a heady drug, and it has, in the words of the song, been the ruin of many a poor boy—the message starts to get distorted, the focus shifts from the content to the one delivering the content, the ego waxes strong. Success is more spiritually dangerous than failure, and it has ruined many.
Vainglory has a thousand faces, from the gross seeking of fame and honor to the quiet wish that somebody would just say thank you once in a while. And it is a tenacious weed in the soul, one that takes a very long time to eradicate. It’s roots go deep and are tangled with many things that are good and righteous in us.
Vainglory is so powerful because it has a core truth to it. Truly, we are meant to receive the valuation of our life from another. We are not meant to be our own judges—in fact, we cannot be. And it is the core of pride, subject of next Wednesday’s blog post, that we make ourselves that.
We are meant to stand under judgment, and some part of us hungers for that. Something in us wants, indeed needs to be told by another what good our life is. But vainglory goes badly awry when it locates that other in flesh and blood, in the crowd or in that one person whose opinion matters to us. It is not the other whose good opinion will make us happy, the rather The Other.
Strictly speaking, our eternal happiness lies in holding the good opinion of that Other, of God. Vainglory is ‘vain’, that is empty and pointless, because it leads us nowhere and cannot secure us the happiness we seek. True glory—the glory of God, the eternal light of heaven which already is vouchsafed to us in the gift of sanctifiying grace and which will be ours after death in consequence of God’s particular judgment of us, is the real thing, the real happiness of the soul.
As I always say around here, I have much more to say on the subject, but I do want you to buy my book, so I will leave it there for now. May we spend today concerned not for the good opinion of man but with pleasing God who alone can make us happy.