A recent internet uproar over the behavior of a Catholic celebrity reminded me of an incident from my days as a graduate student in economics.
During one class, my labor economics professor scraped his fingernails on the chalkboard. We all grimaced. He looked at the class and said dryly, “Occupational hazard.”
Yes, economists really do talk like that.
The Catholic celebrity being uncharitable reminded me of these “occupational hazards.” An inflated ego is a hazard of some occupations. No need to name this individual to make him look bad: He did that all by himself, without any help from me (or without any sense of irony.) The behavior pattern is the same, whether it is a political figure, a talking-head commentator, a pop star with an opinion or a Catholic celebrity you admire and think really ought to know better.
Here is how I think it happens: Being a public speaker or a spokesman for a cause requires a certain amount of self-confidence. A person cannot stand up in public, giving his or her opinion to the world, without believing he or she has something to say. A person can’t go back into the fray, day after day, up against criticism and opposition, without believing in his or her heart of hearts, that he or she is correct.
So far, no problem. But when that self-confident persona follows such people into ordinary life, trouble erupts. They carry that sense of rightness, certainty and authority with them into a zone where it doesn’t belong. Maybe they are speaking about something outside their expertise. Maybe they are just offstage trying to live the normal parts of their lives.
If they can’t keep their egos in check, they can drive their family members crazy. They can get to feeling superior or entitled. They may feel the rules that apply to ordinary mortals do not apply to their divine selves.
“Inflated Ego Syndrome” is an occupational hazard for some attorneys who regularly appear in court. Likewise, some academics stand before captive student audiences day after day. I recently heard of a professor who in his own field is considered Mr. Big (and whom no one outside the field has ever heard of.) He left his wife and family for a Sweet Young Thing (also in his field.) He is entitled, you see.
This moral ailment is not confined to men. I know of a woman who left her husband for a guy who fed her promises of fame and glory. She is so special, don’t you know?
After all I have said, you may be surprised to learn that I have some sympathy for this particular hazard. That is because I struggle with it myself. (How do you suppose I recognize it so readily?!?)
For me, the battle with pride and especially envy is a daily struggle. “Why didn’t they invite me to their conference? Don’t they recognize my expertise?” “Who do these people think they are? Don’t they realize I am the authority on this subject?” “Why is everyone paying attention to this young upstart? I’ve been saying that for years.”
And so on. It’s not pretty.
My poor confessor must be getting tired of saying, “Are you familiar with the Litany of Humility?” “Yes, Father.” “Pray that every day.” “Yes, Father.”
I don’t have the heart to tell him I’ve have been praying it for months. Or is it years, by now? Dang.
The natural condition of mankind after the Fall is selfishness. Unless we actively work to counteract this, we will end up self-centered, self-absorbed and self-important, feeling lonely and looking stupid. So, what is the solution, especially if you are in a high-risk occupation? I have two suggestions (in addition to the Litany of Humility. Ahem.)
Years ago, author, speaker and theology of the body expert Katrina Zeno gave me excellent counsel. I still remember clearly: We were standing in a restaurant parking lot in San Diego. I had just started the Ruth Institute. Katrina had years of ministry under her belt. I told her that my art designer had advised me to “brand” my name. “It’s all about you, doc. Your name needs to be at the front and center of everything.” Katrina said, “I don’t agree with that. It needs to be about the ministry, not about you.”
I saw at once the good sense of what she was saying. I have tried to implement her wisdom. I can’t say I’m always getting it right. But I can honestly say, 10 years later, that the less it’s “about me” and the more it’s “about the ministry,” the more successfully things have gone.
Second suggestion: Do your best to build people up and avoid tearing people down. Notice that, in this article, I only mentioned a name to offer praise: Katrina Zeno. The only person I identify negatively is myself.
I don’t need to name any specific celebrity priest or pop star or Dr. Big Head who is currently in the news for making fools of themselves. You can fill in the blanks with plenty of people. If I named names, I would be piling on to the negativity. And besides, a year from now, no one will remember today’s Appalling Incident. Instead, next year, some new knucklehead will be thumping his chest and looking like an idiot.
The particulars may change. The general point remains: Arrogance is not attractive. Pride is a serious sin. If unchecked, it will get you into a lot of trouble.
We are called to be the light of the (very dark) world. If our unchurched neighbors or lapsed Catholic relatives judged Catholicism by our behavior (and don’t fool yourself — they probably do), what would they conclude?
You and I don’t have to be part of the social-media-internet-modern-meanness problem. We can be part of the solution. Criticize ideas and principles, and, wherever possible, avoid tearing down individuals by name.
Give credit where it is due. Be grateful.