Because I Can

A comic I regularly read in order to maintain some semblance of sanity in this insane world gave me pause recently. One of the characters is bragging that he has a new app on his smart phone that flushes his toilet at home when he is not there. His friend asks why he would want to do that and he answers: “Because I can.”  Aside from being amusing, my friends, this is the technological imperative in a humorous vein. We do things without asking why simply because we can.

Strictly speaking, however, we aren’t doing much of anything. The character in the comic simply presses a button, as so many of us do to make things happen. And then we take pride in the fact that “WE” can do remarkable things. It’s not we at all, of course, but the device we hold in our hand that allows us to perform those minor miracles.

Gabriel Marcel, years ago, wrote of the pride folks feel when they see an airplane lift off into the clear sky, the sense of pride they have in seeing their fellow humans free themselves once again from the pull of gravity and take off into the great beyond. He warned us that there is something seriously wrong with this pride we feel. Again, we feel pride in seeing something someone else has done, not we ourselves — though even the pride we feel in our own accomplishments can be problematic.

In fact, pride has always been a problem. It was so for the Greeks who warned about an excess of pride, or hubris as it was called. There was a certain appropriateness in feeling the pride of being a Greek, of course — after all as such we are not “barbarians” (the name they used to refer to everyone else). But anything beyond that, anything in excess of the allotted amount, if you will, leads inexorably to tragedy. This was the point of the Greek plays that showed us again and again what happens when humans begin to think they are gods. There are things we can do as humans and there are things we cannot do — and things we should not do; we need to continue to remind ourselves what those limits are.

The Christian religion also had problems with pride, listing it among the cardinal sins — not just an excess of pride, but any pride at all. After all, we are creatures of God and whatever pathetic accomplishments we might list on our résumé are ultimately the result of God’s powers and gifts. We can take no pride in doing anything we do because the good that we do is God working through us. We must, rather, become humble.

To be sure, the Christian proscription holds little sway these days, as indeed does the Christian religion itself. We have shown ourselves unwilling to answer to the Christian demands for sacrifice and vows of poverty and we are even less likely to refuse to allow that we don’t accomplish great things ourselves — or take pride in the work of other human beings: we are not about to pass along the credit for human accomplishments to an unknown force about Whom we have serious doubts.

But in refusing to take seriously the warnings about pride and about its possible excesses we flirt with disaster. This is especially true in this nuclear age and it is also true in our industrial age when we see the waters around us rising, islands in the Pacific disappearing, and the tundra and ice caps melting, yet we simply ignore those things because we are confident that somehow at some point some human being or other will figure out how to deal with the problem and it will go away.

I sometimes wonder if the success of the space program — which takes us all away from this earth, and even promises the possibility of travel to other planets — has not been one of the major factors in causing so many people to somehow debase the earth, to deny, or at the very least ignore, the awful things we are doing to the Mother us all. Like the man watching the plane lift off into the sky, we take pride in the fact that human beings are no longer “tied” to earth. Our collective chests swell with pride. The earth is simply one more satellite circumnavigating the sun and when it has become wasted we will simply colonize another planet either in this solar system or one not so very far away. The games we play and movies we flock to assure us that this is a possibility.

It seems preposterous, doesn’t it? But I do wonder — just as I do wonder how so many people can ignore the fact of climate change and blindly assume that somehow it can be fixed. After all, we are humans and there is nothing we cannot do if we put our minds to it! There’s that pride, my friends, there lies the germ of tragedy. The Greeks knew.


16 thoughts on “Because I Can

  1. The Greek adage, “Through suffering comes wisdom” presumes we learn from our mistakes. Regrettably, we do not feel the consequences of poor environmental choices directly, so future generations will live with the consequences. Putting a person on the moon provided huge technology advances and pride, but today’s NASA goals have little real value other than helping us think we can solve any issue. I wish their budget was more focused on our earthly problems.

  2. As a personal quality, pride can lead one to a bad end. Hubris is a foundation of tragedy.

    Humility, can be an important personal corrective. As Saint Augustine said,” It was Pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.” If one is fortunate, tragedy can lead to humility. Often it leads only to madness.

    When pride is linked to great power, be it economic, political, bureaucratic, or technological, its consequences are multiplied. The costs are much higher. The number of those who suffer is greater. The likelihood that personal humility alone will be a corrective diminishes.

    A preoccupation with one’s self often leads to personal tragedy. But when that preoccupation is linked with power, it often leads to collective disaster.

    One need look no further than this President for a current political example of a rolling disaster grounded in hubris. Globally, the changing climate is a substantial result of a prideful transformation of the natural environment.

    I believe we shall be humbled and abased by the consequences of both.

    For this reason, I was particular interested in Sha’Tara’s reference to Proverbs 16:18 (KJV) — “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

    Words of wisdom.

  3. Hugh, well said. Two reactions. 1) Just because you can, does not mean you should. 2) pride often leads to humbling falls.

    One of the tenets of successful companies per the book “Built to Last,” is “good enough never is.” Rather than pride, look for ways to improve.

    For those who believe pride is not a factor, should look at the infamous Sports Illustrated curse of being on the cover. The pride that followed made the cover athletes vulnerable.

    Welll done. Keith

  4. This piece reminds me of the Philosopher’s Stone, which in the making holds deadly consequences for those who handle the Material unworthily, being enraptured with its initial proofs of power and transformation to fall victim to their own enticing lusts for power, having tasted of the Source. Also, that the rudiments of Wisdom can turn a man mad with lust for Power on the convincing evidence of the Matter, driving them to seek past their abilities to control such Wisdom, once first discovered. Hubris.

  5. Yesterday while on a ‘Birding Walk for Mental and Physical Exercisie’ I noted the vultures high overhead, soaring in lazy circles on the invisible air currents. I recalled asking a birding specialist ‘Why” did they soar so high, and his answer was, “Because they can.’
    When I read your post off line, I thought of that, and then again yesterday (thought of your post) and I smiled. Sometimes it’s good when birds soar ‘Because they can’ but not good when people assume postures of arrogance – or of inconsideration for others ‘Because they can.’

    Thank you, Hugh, for prompting us, for nudging us, and even if we don’t often say ‘Thanks,’ you make a positive difference.

  6. I think that humans see themselves as something far more important than they actually are in the grand scheme of things. We pat ourselves on the back for small achievements that mean little, if anything, to the global community. 1,000 or 50,000 years from now, will it matter that you gave the best management presentation in the history of your company? Or that you finally got the cobwebs off the ceiling? Nah … we are but a speck in the annals of history.

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