*An essay a week in 2017*
On Sunday I finally landed from my last of 4 trips over 5 weeks: Minneapolis where I helped run VONA’s regional program on the ground in conjunction with The Loft Literary Center; Newport Beach, Oregon for a Tin House NonFiction workshop with Lidia Yuknavitch; AWP in DC where I was on a panel; & finally a gig at The Center for Women Writers in North Carolina this past weekend.
I was out on my deck looking at the night sky when it hit me: this swelling in my chest that felt like a lightening; a pulling in my cheeks that made a toothless smile appear and soon I was giggling at myself. I sat with this strange feeling when it hit me: it was pride I was feeling. I told my partner. She said: “You should be proud, babe. And this is just the beginning.”
Then came the discomfort. Pride feels self-lauding and congratulatory. The shame set in quickly. The who the fuck do you think you are? The: you have no right to be proud. You shouldn’t be proud. Pride ain’t ever a good thing, girl. Como te atrevez? Te crees gran mierda pero no lo eres. Bring yourself down a few notches, girl. Stop being so full of yourself.
Google defines pride as:
- a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired. “the team was bursting with pride after recording a sensational victory” Synonyms include: pleasure, joy, delight, gratification, fulfillment, satisfaction, a sense of achievement, “take pride in a good job well done”
- a group of lions forming a social unit.
- be especially proud of a particular quality or skill. “she’d always prided herself on her ability to deal with a crisis” — synonyms: be proud of, be proud of oneself for, take pride in, take satisfaction in, congratulate oneself on, pat oneself on the back for, “Lucas prides himself on his knowledge of wine”
Where does pride live in your body? It lives in my chest. It feels light. Like the weight of never feeling like I’m enough is lifted. It feels like accomplishment. It feels like I finally feel worthy and capable. It is so damn fleeting.
I used to imagine this life. I used to wish for it: the travel, the meeting people, the writing and learning and sharing love and heart and stories. I used to wish for it so hard. The wishing make me work my ass off. I quit the safety net of a full time editing job to live this life. I risked so much: financial security, knowing where my next check was coming from, how I was going to pay the bills, the rent, the light, money to fill the fridge. There were days when I had to decide whether to pay the light or buy food for me and my little girl. I’ve gotten eviction notices. I’ve defaulted on my student loans. There were so many times when I couldn’t afford to go anywhere that required money so we spent a lot of time in the park, on the grass, sandwiches and fruit in my knapsack. That’s how much, how bad I wanted this. For me. For us. Me and baby girl.
People have called me irresponsible. What do I see? I see a woman who showed her daughter what it takes to live your dreams. I showed my daughter that she too can live her dreams if she is willing to work for it. She has learned some valuable lessons from her mama.
I know this life isn’t meant for everyone. It’s taken me a long time and a lot of talking to folks to realize just how risky it was.
At AWP, a friend whose memoir was recently released told me how much she sacrificed to make this life happen for herself. When she got her book deal, she was months behind on her mortgage payments. She was near foreclosure. But she knew she had to write this book. She just had to. It was a burning inside of her that would turn her into ash if she didn’t. So she did, and she got a fantastic two-book deal to make it happen. “You’re doing everything you need to do, Vanessa.” she said, outside of a bar where we had just rubbed elbows with agents and publishers, some who were interested in seeing my work and some who were dismissive and gross. (Let’s just say I walked out of there knowing the type of person I want to represent me and the type I don’t.) “Keep going. You’re on your way. You will have all of this. All of it,” my friend said. My eyes welled. I let the tears fall as I stared at the traffic on that downtown D.C. avenue. I didn’t know how badly I needed to hear those words. I know now that I did.
I thought of this as I felt the mixture of pride and shame that made my stomach turn sour. I wondered: Why can’t I be proud of myself? Why can’t I say “I did this” and it not feel like I need to bring myself down a notch? Is that the internalized outside gaze? Whose gaze? Who made me feel this shame? And how can I convert it into action? What can I generate from this? Can I turn it into an acceptance of this pride that I know I deserve and have earned?
Christian theology says pride is one of the deadly sins. St. Augustine wrote: “It was Pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”
According to DeadlySins.com:
“The sin of Pride is said by some to be the foremost of the Seven Deadly Sins. Hubris is the gateway through all other sins enters the mortal soul.”
What it is: “Pride is excessive belief in one’s own abilities, that interferes with the individual’s recognition of the grace of God. It has been called the sin from which all others arise. Pride is also known as Vanity.”
The punishment in Hell: “You’ll be broken on the wheel.”
Woah. That’s some heavy shit right there.
I write about the human experience. As such, when thinking about pride this week, I started digging into my own life and the moments I was robbed of my pride. I started a list that I’m sure will grow as I continue to dig into this wound.
At my graduation dinner from Columbia University, while still draped in my graduation gown, the Columbia crown stitched into the lapel, my mother told me she knew I wasn’t going to do shit with my life (“Yo sabía que no ibas a ser ni mierda con tu vida”) when I told her I wasn’t going to law school. She slammed her fork down on the table so hard, it shook.
I have never regretted that decision.
In 8th grade, I came home excited from a dance performance. I’d finally earned a solo in an interpretive dance piece we did for the Black History Month celebration. I remember the poem started: “What shall I tell my children who are black…” (Thanks to google, I now know it’s a poem by Dr. Margaret Burroughs.)
Within minutes of arriving, my sister reminded me that I was “retarded” and “still ain’t shit.” I remember her curled lip and how she looked down at me from her top bunk. My sister has always been quick to be the needle to burst my bubble whenever I’ve felt good about myself or something I’d accomplished.
On Christmas, the last time I spoke to her, she told me my writing was bullshit and my followers are bullshit. When I told her that she is so much the reason for why I’m a writer because as a kid all I wanted was to be like her, she said: “I don’t give a fuck why you’re a writer, Vanessa.” I’ve saved the textument. I am quoting her verbatim.
A college professor once gave us the assignment of writing about someone we knew growing up. I wrote about Teresa, the neighborhood crackhead, and how fragile and beautiful she was. I was proud of that piece. I was so young, just 18 or 19, trying my hand at writing, and I was looking for support, encouragement. When the professor handed back the piece, he told me “this isn’t writing,” and he didn’t have the cojones to look at me when he said it.
Aristotle considered pride to be a virtue. Neel Burton writes on his blog:
A person is proud if he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of great things. If he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of small things he is not proud but temperate, for pride implies greatness. In terms of the vices, a person who thinks himself worthy of great things when he is unworthy of them is vain, whereas a person who thinks himself worthy of less than he is worthy of is pusillanimous. Compared to vanity, pusillanimity is both commoner and worse, and so more opposed to pride.
It’s often so easy to write about the difficult things we’ve experienced in life. But what about the joy? What about the times my pride was reinforced? What about the times that I was encouraged to be proud of myself and all that I’d accomplished? I think of my brother…
A few years ago, I was flown down to Atlanta when a book I co-wrote won an award. I called my brother from the veranda of the posh hotel I was put up in by the organizers of the Decatur Book Festival. It was right across the road from Emory College, and every morning I sat outside under the sun to eat a custom made omelet. I called my brother on one of those mornings. “I’m having breakfast on a veranda, bro! This is some All My Children shit.” He laughed: “What the fuck is a veranda?” Me: “I don’t know but I’m sitting on one.” We laughed so hard. Before we hung up, he said: “I’m proud of you, sis. You doing it.” He always told me he was proud of me. When I came home with good grades. When I got into boarding school and Columbia. When I wrote my first book. When I went to my first VONA and the four times I attended after. He was always the first one to say it and often the only one.
From what I can tell, there is a difference between the pride deemed a sin in Christian texts and the pride Aristotle called a virtue. The former is more about vanity; the arrogant, megalomaniac type, where the person is obsessed with himself and his power. The pride Aristotle refers to is earned pride in oneself and one’s work. A pride that is not all consuming but connected to self-worth and the work one does out in the world. A pride that encourages the person to continue producing.
In my research on pride, I found a fascinating article on Psychology Today called Pride and Creativity: How pride is pride related to creative achievement?
“You received a score of 124 out of 147, which is the 94th percentile. Great job on that! That’s one of the highest scores we’ve seen so far!”
When Lisa Williams and David DeSteno told this to their participants, they noticed a significant increase in perseverance on a difficult cognitive task. This intrigued them, so they fiddled with the dials to see what was going on. When they took out the “Great job” part and just told the participants they performed exceptional, they saw no increase in perseverance. When they put people in a generally positive mood by having them look at pleasant pictures, such as a wedding and a tropical landscape—again, no increase in perseverance. What was it about this particular phrasing that increased motivation?
The winning phrasing was effective because it activated one of our most deeply-rooted emotions: pride. Pride is receiving a lot of research attention these days, as researchers are increasingly realizing its potency. In a recent study, David Matsumoto and Hyi Sung Hwang distinguish pride from triumph, another deeply-rooted human emotion. Participants were in strong agreement about what pride looks like:
Pride may have evolved to motivate people to achieve social status in a socially valued domain. This emotion emotion is not just any feel-good emotion though. Pride particularly makes people feel good about themselves. Children are quick to associate pride with domains in which they feel competent, and are driven to further pursue those domains. In contrast, those who continually receive negative feedback in a domain quickly lose their motivation for achieving in that domain.
But here’s the paradox: pride is correlated with both positive and negative social consequences. Pride has always received mixed reviews. The ancient Greeks viewed pride as “the crown of the virtues” whereas the early Christian philosophers viewed pride as the “deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins”. Pride is quite the polarizing emotion!
To reconcile these different conceptualizations of pride, researchers have found it useful distinguishing between two different shades of pride: authentic and hubristic.
Authentic pride is fueled by the emotional rush of accomplishment, confidence, and success, and is associated with prosocial and achievement-oriented behaviors, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, satisfying interpersonal relationships, and positive mental health. Authentic pride is also associated with genuine self-esteem, which is high self-esteem controlling for narcissism. Authentic pride, and its associated subjective feelings of confidence and accomplishment may facilitate behaviors that are associated with attaining prestige. People who are confident, agreeable, hard-working, energetic, kind, empathic, non-dogmatic, and high in genuine self-esteem would draw inspiration from others and would want to be emulated by others.
Hubristic pride, on the other hand, is fueled by arrogance and conceit, and is associated with anti-social behaviors, rocky relationships, low levels of conscientiousness and high levels of disagreableness, neuroticism, narcissism, and poor mental health outcomes. Hubristic pride, and its associated subjective feelings of superiority and arrogance, may facilitate dominance by motivating behaviors such as aggression, hostility, and manipulation…
No one said creativity is simple, or has a single cause. People may take different paths to the same outcome. At any rate, one thing is clear: pride plays an important role in fueling creativity.
Why can’t you be proud of what you’ve accomplished and the work you do without someone calling you arrogant or saying you should temper it? What’s wrong with feeling pride when you’ve struggled so much to get where you are, to create a life for yourself in spite of the odds and numerous obstacles? And what’s with this shaming when you say you’re proud? What’s this shame we impose on ourselves? Where does it come from? How can we push back on it and remind ourselves that pride in one’s work is a beautiful thing? You should be proud of what you do and how you exist in the world. I’m talking about a healthy dose of pride, whatever that means to you. Not the pride that makes you think you’re better than people. Not the pride that keeps you from helping others. Not the pride that makes you think people owe you something or should look up to you. Nah. I’m talking about pride in what you do, in your grind, in your accomplishments. Pride that will keep you doing the necessary, important work that will hopefully make this world a better place. That kind of pride.
During her lecture at AWP, Jacqueline Woodson said that even today, after having written 32 books and receiving countless accolades in the form of awards and prizes, she still wakes up some days amazed that she’s a writer. She said she can hardly believe it sometimes.
This begs the question: can you be humble and also be proud of the work you do and know its importance in the world? I think so. The thing is, we often have teach ourselves how to be. We’ve been taught as women, especially as women of color, to be humble to the point of self-deprecation, but if I can’t be proud of what I’ve accomplished, of having created this life for myself, then how can I teach my students to be proud of the work they do, of how they push themselves to dig deeper into themselves and their stories? How can I teach my daughter to be proud of her fabulousness, of being so talented and compassionate and such a hard worker, if I don’t show her that I am of her? That I am proud of myself? Our kids learn by impersonation.
This is my promise to myself: I will work on being proud of how far I’ve gotten, as an unmothered woman who had to learn to become a woman and mother through trial and error. A woman who lives and loves in resistance to the way she was taught in her formative years. I will work on being able to take compliments and being gracious when they come in instead of cringing and wanting to run and hide. I will work on opening my heart to receiving the beautiful recognitions people gift me via notes and emails and face to face gushing that makes me blush. I will work on being a better, more accepting of love, Vanessa. Why do I say this? Because I realize that this is love that is coming my way. People show their love in so many ways. They do it when they see me and run over and want to meet me. They do it by sending me notes telling me how much my work has influenced them. They do it by sending emails to the Director of the center that brought me on to facilitate a talk and generative class, telling her to please bring me back, that I’m one of the best facilitators they’ve ever worked with, that I gave so much of myself, with no ego, with vulnerability and heart.
I don’t want to be the one to slap the hand of love away. I’ve done that so much in my life already. This was me functioning from a place of trauma. I am working on being a better Vanessa. One who can accept and be open to love in all its forms…especially now, when I have to teach myself how to be. Word.