On Vanity and Insecurity

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on the vice of egoism, and a point which struck me the other day is the sheer number of synonyms that exist in the English language for the word ‘pride’. Many of these are most familiar to us in the form of adjectives, presumably because we find them useful for describing those around us. We speak of a man being arrogant, haughty, vain, cocky, pompous, imperious, in each case the connotation being just slightly different, but all driving at the same thing. In a similar vein, a man may be pretentious, lordly, overbearing, supercilious, or simply egotistic. Of course, some of this verbal diversity may stem from the fact that English has one of the richest and largest vocabularies of any language. But the fact that we continue to use all of these various descriptors in our day-to-day life would suggest that they signify something real, namely, the manifold and highly pervasive nature of human pride. 

For those of us who have yet to advance past St. Teresa of Ávila’s second or third dwelling place, there is a true sense in which pride underlies almost everything we do. When listening to a friend in conversation, oftentimes we are more preoccupied with our next profound point than we are with the words they are speaking. When posting on social media, we feel (and often fail to fight) the urge to have others admire us, and to make our lives look happier than they actually are. Even in prayer, we easily slip into self-congratulation, preoccupied with our own thoughts and accomplishments rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to truly challenge and convict us. It seems St. Thomas Aquinas was correct in his observation that “Pride is the beginning of all sin” (ST. I-II, 84, 2; cf. Sir. 10:15).

The great paradox of pride, of course, is that it makes us miserable. In the very moment that we puff our egos and tout our accomplishments, that is when we feel most hollow, most inadequate. The problem of pride is especially acute in the case of vanity, i.e., the excessive preoccupation with what others think about you. Vanity parades itself as an exaltation of oneself, but the sad reality is that it is when we are most vain that we feel most insecure, and most lacking in self-esteem. Experience readily proves this to be the case.

Of all the world philosophies, only Christianity properly gets this, as evidenced by the Master’s teaching that “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt. 10:39). Only Christianity realizes that the path to fulfilment lies through first denying oneself. We must reject vanity in all its deceptive forms by first recognizing how weak and fragile we are. But the Christian does not stop there. The self-abnegation is never an end in itself, but rather it is an emptying of oneself, so that Christ can fill the vacuum. 

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers the moving statement, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8). As the Catechism reminds us, this purity of heart entails not just seeing God, for it “also enables us to see according to God” (#2519), i.e., to see one another, and even ourselves, through God’s eyes. Putting it even more strongly, we might say that purity of heart allows us to see God in the other – and also in ourselves. When we do this, our vanity falls away, and so does our insecurity. We are no longer preoccupied with appearing impressive, or with how others perceive us. No longer rooted in our accomplishments or achievements, now our self-worth is entirely grounded in the gaze of the Father. 

One of C.S. Lewis’ wisest sayings is his famous observation that “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less”. This is wonderfully insightful, and it contains an important truth. I wonder, though, if we might not take Lewis a step further. In reality, Christian humility not only isn’t a thinking-less-of-yourself, it actually consists in thinking more of yourself! It is the vanity of the world that limits our self-worth to our meagre accomplishments and achievements. It is the authentic humility and pure vision of Jesus Christ that offers us that profound sense of immeasurable self-worth at which all anxiety, fear, and insecurity falls away.