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What is there to be arrogant about?

There are so many arrogant people running around. Full of themselves, cocksure, always right, always certain of their positions, usually dismissive of others.

Why, though? What is there to be arrogant about, for any human being?

You are arrogant because you are rich, perhaps? But how fickle is material wealth? It can be obtained through theft and trickery, inheritance or good fortune. And even if yours is hard-fought and well-earned, a major misstep or two are all it takes to have you in the clutches of your banks or your creditors. So what is there to be arrogant about?

Is it because you are a person of accomplishments? You have clocked some achievements to your name, and that wins you some accolades? Actually, even the most adept and proficient amongst us are only a slip away from a major blunder. Our minds can fool us; our skills can prove to be outmoded; our worldviews can end up on the wrong side of history.

Are you arrogant because you have power? Really? Power over what? A small patch of this planet, for a fraction of time? Power is lost easily and quickly, and sometimes brutally. The more you lean on power, the harder you will fall when it is snatched away. Your days of arrogance when holding the reins will count heavily against you when the tide turns and others snatch the instruments of power from your hands.

You are a clever person, you say, who’s always clocked the best grades and whose sharpness of intellect is respected? Caution, please. Your very acuity may well be your undoing. Cleverness makes us complacent and dismissive, and that’s when danger looms. The clever often find themselves confirmed as dimwits when overconfidence reigns and they fail to see the obvious truth before them. And in any case, the keenness of even the best minds is eventually dulled by age. Being smug and haughty because of your smartness is to be on a fool’s errand.

It could be that your hubris emanates from your popularity? You have hordes of social media followers; your word is awaited by thousands; your fans are full of praise and goodwill for you? Do you seriously feel you can count on the continued interest of the humans out there? The crowd moves on. You may be the bee’s knees today, but you’ll be the discarded bigwig tomorrow. There is nothing more fickle than popularity. The esteem of human beings is easily won and easily lost, and can turn on the most trivial of reasons.

Your pride may come from something more seemingly solid: health and beauty. You are fit, robust, good-looking, and everyone says so? You can feel the admiration in their gazes when they behold your vitality? Ahem. Human health can be lost in a heartbeat, through a random occurrence. Every flower has its few days of glory before wilting. Human beauty is momentary. Our skin sags and crinkles; our bones weaken as they age; our hair whitens or just falls out. If you have a certain vanity because of your looks, you have many years of resentment coming, long after the bloom is gone.

Every thread of human accomplishment—cleverness, beauty, riches, power—is interwoven with fallibility and transience. Arrogance is a false fortress, built on sand. We have seen it repeatedly: the greatest empires of history have fallen; the best ideas of their time have been replaced; the most legendary sportspeople have faded away.

Arrogance, then, is not just misplaced, it is fundamentally flawed. What should we have in its place? We still, after all, need to strive. We need to put in great effort and aim for the best accomplishments of which we are capable, even if all success is transient. The answer lies in humility. 

Humility acknowledges that we are specks on a speck in this universe. It accepts that we are fools masquerading as sages. It understands the essential temporariness of everything we do and achieve. And yet it gives us the will and power to continue. Why? Because when we diminish our individual importance, we become aware of the collective greatness possible in humanity. Humility bestows many superpowers: the appreciation of the the contributions of others; the ability to accept mistakes and to learn from them; the acceptance of impermanence in our lives. This ability to listen acutely and learn deeply—that’s where real greatness comes from.

Humility teaches us many things. It allows us to respect a past that did not contain us; to cherish a present that is not just about us; and to be open-minded about a future that may be very different from the one we predict.

Still feeling arrogant, for some reason? Tonight, go outside and stare up at the sky. Gaze into the endless expanse that has absolutely nothing to do with you, and does not need you for anything. Face your own inconsequence and ephemerality, and if you are wise, go back inside feeling foolish. There is no reason for any human to feel arrogant.

(Sunday Nation, 4 February 2024)

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