For generations, all around the world, people have told stories that warn us of the dangers of hubris. When we think we don’t need the gods, or that we’re better than the gods, that’s hubris, and it always leads – at least in the stories – to disaster.
Take the Greek myth about Arachne, a young woman renowned for her skill in weaving. Her tapestries were so beautiful that royalty came from far and wide, and nymphs came out of the woodland, to admire her creations. According to legend, all weavers owed their talent to the goddess Athena, but Arachne refused to thank the goddess. Instead, she claimed aloud that she owed her ability to no one. Her hard work and creativity alone were responsible for the marvelous weavings she made.
“In fact,” she said one day, with a crowd gathered around her, “I am so certain of my skill that I would dare Athena herself to compete against me.”
That brought gasps of horror from her friends. An old woman stepped forward and tried to dissuade her. “Be careful what you speak,” she said. “Acknowledge your debt to the goddess or you will be sorry.”
Arachne did not heed the woman’s words and only repeated her challenge. Suddenly, Athena herself appeared and stepped in front of Arachne. “All right, young woman,” she said, “I accept your challenge.”
You might imagine that Arachne would lose such a contest. After all, who can be better than a god – at anything?
Besides, who among us is as good as we think? To maintain our self esteem, we imagine we are more skilled, delightful, and wise than we really are. For instance, according to Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, 90% of us think we are better than average drivers, which makes 40% of us wrong. People who start small businesses think they can succeed where five previous owners failed. Very few do. Counselors imagine they have the expertise to help the man who was not helped by ten counselors before him, which is a dangerous hubris for everyone concerned. Then, when they fail, business owners and counselors rationalize that failure and remain as prideful and self-satisfied as ever. Hubris does not easily relinquish its hold.
Which is what caused Arachne to fail.
Athena wove first, creating a tapestry filled with the escapades of the gods, ones that highlighted their brilliance and mocked humans. It was detailed and luminous; a masterpiece. Next, Arachne wove, a panoply of god stories taking shape beneath her fingers, only this time the mocking was of the gods, the stories reminding the crowd who watched over her shoulder of times when Zeus had abducted mortal women, times when Dionysus had allowed his drinking to get out of hand, and of days when Apollo served as a lowly shepherd.
The subject matter angered Athena, of course, but what made it worse was that Arachne’s weaving was richer, deeper, and more realistic than what the goddess herself had created. Arachne won the contest.
If the mortal woman thought she would win some prize for her feat, she was wrong. Angrily, Athena doomed Arcahne to weave forever, yet instead of arousing awe and delight, her creations would arouse fear and disgust. Arachne had become the spider who hides in a corner of a room, lurking in the dark, spinning one web after another, only to have each one swept away by industrious homemakers.
We probably have little sympathy for Arachne. Pride and hubris are not the most endearing of qualities. You could say, she had it coming.
On the other hand, what kind of god gets rankled by a foolish mortal, accepts the boaster’s challenge without noticing her miraculous talent, then loses to her? Not very impressive. To make it worse, Athena gets swept away by her anger, envy, and vindictiveness. Surely real gods don’t act that way.
Unlike those ancient Greeks, we are more sophisticated. We think our deities are perfectly patient, loving, and accepting. They forgive us everything and rain mercy on our heads. That’s the kind of god I’m comfortable with, that I believe in, that I respect, and that I preach about.
The Hubris of Defining God
Yet if I think I understand God, am I not guilty of hubris? Our image of this divine being or force can only be based on what we know, and what we know is very human. God may be in everything. Maybe everything is God. Yet that doesn’t mean we understand God. God is mystery. Humility means sitting with that mystery and with the questions that arise. Humility means giving up the need to have answers. At least in this world.
Arachne thought she knew everything. She thought she could best the gods and live to tell her tale. She epitomized that pride that comes before the fall.
What Is Hubris?
But is hubris really about pride? I don’t think so. Hubris is about our refusal to acknowledge that we aren’t the best, that we owe our skill, wealth, or fame not just to our own efforts, but to the support of others, as well. The “self-made man” is a common myth in our country, as if we don’t benefit from teachers, friends, mentors, and all those who came before and created the systems and tools and ideas we use. We stand, as they say, on the backs of generations of ancestors. If life were like stories, then those who forgot the importance of God, society, and human intervention would end up as spiders, or hunchbacks, or poor, or lonely, and few of us would be sorry about it.
In the song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan tells the story of a rich and beautiful young woman who went to the best schools, drove in expensive cars, wore diamonds, and scorned street people. Brought low by circumstances, left homeless, frightened, and alone, she had few options left. “You used to be so amused by Napolean in rags and the language that he used,” Dylan sings. But now the young woman is reduced to seeking help from the very man she once scorned.
Life can be cruel to those who insist on learning kindness the hard way. Hubris interferes with our empathy, compassion, and care. Hubris can also get in the way of success.
About forty years ago, I earned a bit of money playing jazz piano at a restaurant in Eugene. Once, two young men expressed an interest in having me join their band, but first they wanted to hear me to play a certain piece for them, which I did. Afterward, they told me they’d never before heard it played slowly like that.
I felt embarrassed. I didn’t want to admit that I’d never actually heard the piece and thus didn’t realize how the composer had been meant it to be played. Instead, I said, “Well, that’s how I play it.”
They never talked to me again. After all, who would want to work with a pianist who thinks she knows better than the composer how to interpret a piece, even if she does have talent? talent is as common as tears. Humility, which helps us get along with others, is more like clean spring water – rare.
Hubris, Humility, and Recovery
It took me years to learn humility. Sometimes, I still forget. You might say that I was acting out of insecurity rather than hubris. Perhaps I was. Yet I didn’t honor the gods who gave my gift. I didn’t offer up songs to them, try to channel the love or beauty or wonder of the godhead. Although I did honor my piano teacher, and that young man in college who encouraged me to improvise, I still thought my skill was mine and mine alone. I was a snob. Because of it, I sometimes lost friends, opportunities, self esteem. Fortunately, I was forced to figure it out. Some people never are.
Getting lost in addictions, experiencing traumas, losing loved ones, having our dreams torn out of us, feels nasty. It hurts like hell to wake up shattered hearts, but that we wake at all is a good thing. If life doesn’t crack us open, doesn’t reveal the broken edges of our soul, the emptiness of our spirit, we will die inside long before our bodies give up.
Yet if we can see our ignorance and feel our pain, we are the lucky ones because in that moment, hubris is impossible. Being brought low means we must humble ourselves to survive, and that – the humility that allows us to reach out, to cry for help – is a blessing. We think it’s a curse, this misery, but it’s not. Waking up allows us to see both the ugliness and the marvelous, deep, wonderful beauty within us.
Imagine being Arachne instead. Because life never knocked her upside the head and made her realize how small she really was, in the end she lost everything, including herself. I like to think, though, that it wasn’t really the end. Maybe she learned something as a spider. Maybe somewhere along the way, Arachne stumbled across recovery and was able to mature, grow, change, love, and laugh.
Recovery is finding ourselves. By embracing a path of recovery, we become our true selves, the sacred, deep, wise beings God or the Universe intended us to be. I don’t know what God is. I trust, however, that God has skills and love far beyond my capacity to imagine. So I trust that the deity delights in the shattering of our hubris, in our questions and our humility, for in this way we learn to embrace the recovery that makes us fully alive.
In faith and fondness,
Painting by Francesco del Cossa of the contest between Arachne and Athena.
Copyright © 2016 Barbara E. Stevens