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Pride and Humility

As one of the 7 deadly sins, I think pride gets a bad rap. I’ll explain more in a bit, but let me first tell you about last week when I was a guest at a conference for Jesuit school educators.

For those unfamiliar, Jesuit schools have a particular nomenclature that helps to order their work. It is not as though these general concepts are foreign to other Catholic schools, however, the specificity of the Jesuit language centers attention and fosters conversation regarding school practice. This nomenclature often anchors conference gatherings - so much so that a former Jesuit school administrator used to affectionately quip that buzzword bingo cards should be handed out to every conference attendee at check in.

During the conference keynote on the first evening, Fr. Kevin Burke, S.J., spoke about the term magis which generally translates to “the more” or “the better.” For many in Jesuit education, this term refers to the continual pursuit of excellence in order to better serve God and others. I’ve always been attracted to this concept though it can admittedly be pretty exhausting without boundaries or context.

Fr. Burke provided a helpful reframing of magis, suggesting that it is akin to the horizon. Note that I didn’t say “a” horizon but rather “the” horizon referencing the dynamism of its location. Each of us experiences the horizon differently, and the horizon moves as we move. As such, it is unattainable. Similarly, magis is not a destination, but rather an aspiration. We often awe at the beauty of the horizon as if there is something magical just beyond our grasp. Magis, too, is that thing that, in spite of our striving, remains beyond our grasp, calling us forward.

My last CrossCurrents post discussed the importance of student perseverance. Academic mindset - the psycho-social attitudes or beliefs one has about oneself in relation to academic work (Farrington et al) - is the sister skill of perseverance. And magis is the embodiment of mindset. Perseverance matters little without purpose. Maintaining a growth mindset allows a person to find and retain purpose throughout the changing landscape of daily living. Magis, then, is the action that animates the purpose. It is also the activity on which perseverance takes hold.

A growth mindset requires the activation of a number of key executive functions including motivation, goal setting, and planning - all of which need practice to master. However, for the purposes of this article, I’d like to focus on the seemingly incompatible characteristics of pride and humility as important contributors to a healthy mindset.

Pride emm​i​​nates from a desire to be your best self. It’s the feeling of satisfaction from a job well done. It’s the recognition of personal dignity. Most importantly, pride requires engagement, both in the form of experiences and among people; pride doesn’t exist in a stationary vacuum. When we encounter a new task, our pride is activated which helps order our motivations and thus our mindset.

Humility comes into play when we recognize that we ​are a work ​in progress every moment of every day​. Thus, every task can be viewed as an opportunity for growth or as an occasion for practice. In this way, pride and humility are complementary. A new task is presented, our humility frees us to respond generously, and our pride calls forth our best effort.

While pride and humility are powerful characteristics, they are no match for hubris. Hubris ​slips in when we think we have become so good that no further growth is necessary. We stop, bask in the view, and settle in. In that moment, both pride and humility vanish, and magis becomes nothing more than a platitude.

Hubris lurks in the dark corners of success. It’s the perennial powerhouse debate team lacking discipline, the undefeated tennis player overlooking her next opponent, and the strong student calculating points to determine the lowest grade he can earn on a final exam and still receive an A. The conundrum for parents, teachers and coaches is knowing when and how to push. We need to build self-esteem but also be willing to have the hard conversations. We need to foster resilience not for the sake of resilience but as a means of achieving a purpose. We need to recognize that when a child stops caring, in most cases, we can’t carry the youngster to the finish line. After all, they are the ones who need to experience the sweet taste of accomplishment or have the opportunity to learn from failure.

Finally, when mile markers are passed, it’s important to occasionally stop to rest, to find joy in the journey, and, at times, to celebrate. The key, though, is to start moving again - knowing that, though the horizon can never be reached, there is something beyond our current standing that is worthy of pursuit. This is the magis.


CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman, AVLI President

vol 5 issue 4


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