Steve and I have been friends for over 50 years. We shared many childhood experiences—youth football, Mackinaw Island with the Boy Scouts, the grade-school bus, and endless days in Adacroft Commons.
For a brief period, his divorced Catholic father even dated my widowed Protestant mother and we joked about being step-brothers. After high school, I went to college and he joined the Marines. Years later, we reconnected in Ann Arbor, I as a grad student and he as an undergrad on the Forever GI Bill.
Our shared experiences continued as we both ran for Michigan State Senate, he as a Republican in Washtenaw County and I, a few years later, as a Democrat in Ottawa County. Those who know Michigan politics won’t be surprised that we both suffered substantial defeats. He now owns a successful DC lobbying firm. His political career has included noble bipartisan initiatives as well as working for members of the venerated (and shrinking sane) portion of the GOP like VanderJagt, the Eisenhower family, and John Kasich. We remain connected to this day.
In fifth grade, Steve and I sat at the back of the room, on opposite sides, at Ada Elementary. In my short career as a scout, I encountered one page of the Boy Scout Handbook that captured my attention—the letters and numbers of ASL. Steve (a future Eagle Scout) and I (a scout dropout after two years) studied that page diligently and then we’d talk to each other using those symbols across the back of Mrs. Giles’ room. Since we only knew the letters, it took forever to talk to each other:
F-O-O-T-B-A-L-L A-T R-E-C-E-S-S
I L-I-K-E T-R-A-C-Y
I thought this was really cool, much cooler than whatever we were learning in fifth grade. I think I liked it because no one else knew how to do it. I knew something that others didn’t and it puffed up my pride.
I was equally captivated when I started learning Spanish in ninth grade. It was my favorite class, despite the incredibly poor instruction I received, easily the worst in my entire education journey. My teacher was a tragic character who was fired the next year.
Poor instruction notwithstanding, I thought this class was really cool, much cooler than whatever else I was learning in ninth grade. I think I liked it because very few others knew Spanish in the 1980s. I knew something that others didn’t and it puffed up my pride.
This fall, I was reminded of my introductions to ASL and Spanish while traveling on the Great American Loop—a 6,500-mile boat journey around the eastern half of the US and Canada. One of the elements of navigating the loop is learning a new nautical lexicon, used largely on the VHF marine radio to communicate with bridge tenders and towboat captains. A prototype of such a dialog with normally laconic towboat captains would be something like:
Me: Miss Shirley, Miss Shirley, Miss Shirley. This is the pleasure craft Hope & Dreams, downbound, Channel 13.
Tow Captain: Shirley back.
Me: Good morning captain, we are approaching you around the corner. How would you like us to pass?
Tow Captain: Wait for me to make the turn, then I’ll see on the ones.
Me: Roger that, captain, on the ones. Thank you and have a great day.
Tow Captain: You, too. Be safe.
“On the ones” is a port-to-port pass. It’s short for “one-whistle” and dates back to pre-electronics and pre-radio days when captains would navigate with their ships’ whistles. I think I like this because few others know how to do it. I know something that others don’t and it puffs up my pride.
There are interesting histories to nautical terms, however when amateur boaters use rhetoric such as “on the ones,” it smacks of grandiloquence. After all, can’t we just say “left” instead of “port,” “OK” instead of “roger that,” or “slowly” instead of “slow bell?” Unlike the tow captains, I don’t do this for a living, so when I talk like this, it feels like I’m bragging.
* * * * *
One common element of these three experiences is that I learned a new way to communicate. I’d like to think this is noble. It is, at some level, I suppose. But my Reformed sensibilities make me wonder if my forays into these new communication modes weren’t simply flings to build up my pride. Since few others in my orbit know how to talk like this, my self-worth gets inflated in spurious and unhealthy ways.
Reformed folks acknowledge that our sinfulness abides at all ages of our earthly life. This idea is consistent with research in developmental psychology that suggests that self-pride begins early in life. Most young children have extraordinarily high self-assessments of their own intelligence. In one study, when given a chance to self-rate how “smart” they are by giving themselves between 1 (the least smart) and 5 (the smartest) stars, the average self-confidence of kindergartners and first-graders was breathtakingly high—4.69. In non-numerical terms this means that most children this age thought they are the smartest student in their class.
Augustine said pride turns angels into devils and humility “makes men as angels.” Proverbs and James offer warnings against pride, with encouragement to replace it with humility.
* * * * *
Jeff Munroe recently reflected in RJ on how our understanding of sin and forgiveness can change, with layers of developmental and cultural influences—from our sins as “an outrage to God worthy of God’s wrath” to Buechner’s conclusion that sometimes it’s really hard to be a full-time Christian.
Jeff’s essay prompted me to ponder: Is my story a silly example of sin? After all, no one got hurt. I wasn’t dishonoring God. I don’t think I made God angry. And I’ve done much worse in my life. In his essay, Jeff asked if he is the only one “who has ‘We’re not angry, just disappointed’ tapes playing in his head.” No, he is not. And the above examples are perhaps cases in point for me. Roll tape.
While talking on the VHF, I realized that I’m still the same boastful and prideful kid I was in fifth and ninth grades, showing off to my friends. Pride is one manifestation of our fallenness. Any thought that I had matured my way out of my child and adolescent pridefulness was extinguished as I hailed the tow captain on the radio.
Fortunately, there are also times when I hear the Spirit’s whisper, reminding me that I am soaked in irresistible grace that washes the sin of pride away, like the downbound water of the rivers that I traveled when I passed the Miss Shirley.