Self Respect Versus Arrogance.
Will the real me please stand up?
What are the roots of a healthy sense of self? We are all aware that self-esteem is essential to our happiness and well-being and to establishing loving relationships. But how many people do you know who have a true, unshakeable sense of self, one that is not dependent on social approval or someone else's recognition?
We tend to focus on the illusion of self-respect, the good feeling of being admired by friends, peers or family members and we fool ourselves thinking that this is healthy self-esteem. This is what we're really after when we speak about our extensive education, attendance at Ivy League schools, our careers and accomplishments. More often than not it comes across as arrogance, not self-esteem.
Oddly enough, genuine self esteem is rooted in humility.
What is Humility?
The Talmud considers Hillel to be the paradigm of humility:
"The Rabbis said, One should always be humble like Hillel and not strict like Shammai" (Talmud, Shabbat 30b).
Presumably, if we want to learn about humility, Hillel should be a good role model to follow. But the Talmud also says this about Hillel:
"They said about Hillel the Elder, when he came to celebrate the Pouring of the Water (in the Temple), he would say: If I am here, everyone is here. And if I am not here, then who is here?" (Talmud, Sukkah 53a)
What kind of a statement is this to make for someone supposedly humble? If I’m here, let the festivities begin? If I’m not here, there’s really nobody else worthwhile around here? How can this be an expression of humility when it seems so arrogant?
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski explains the conflicting relationship between arrogance and self-confidence:
"… arrogance is never the consequence of recognition of one's true skills and talents. A person with a healthy self-esteem has no need for the praise and approbation of others. Arrogance is invariably a desperate attempt of a person who feels negatively about himself to escape from his feelings of worthlessness. He craves honor and seeks praise to assure himself that he is indeed a worthwhile person, in contrast to his feelings…"
(Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, Let Us Make Man, “Self Esteem, Humility and Vanity”)
True humility is an honest recognition of the gifts and strengths you have and the responsibility that entails in putting them to use.
Rabbi Twerski points out that arrogance and hunger for power are just the flip-side of lack of confidence. If you feel worthless inside, you are always in need of external validation and the feeling of power over other people. If on the other hand, you know your strengths and abilities, you are no longer obsessed with other people’s approval, you don’t need to focus on yourself, but rather you are now able to get out of the way and get the job done. The gifts God gave you don't say anything about who you really are – after all, what did you do to receive them? But they do say a lot about what you are capable of doing. In the words of Spider-man, "With great power comes great responsibility."
True humility is an honest recognition of the gifts and strengths you have and the responsibility that entails in putting them to use. When Hillel the Elder said, “If I’m here, everything is here,” he meant: “Based on my abilities and talents which God gave me and for which I take no credit, if I am here, everything can take place now. I have all the ability and therefore obligation (response-ability) to take care of whatever needs to happen at this particular event.”
Insecurity stems from not appreciating the special strengths and gifts God has given you, and results in the need for external validation and approval of others. That in turns leads to arrogance, a false sense of self that ineffectively strives to fill the inner void of feeling good about oneself.
Developing Real Self-Esteem
Real self-esteem derives from a different source entirely:
“Part of belief in God is bitachon, trust, which is the belief that God loves us and is close to the Jewish People. That the Jew has a special relationship with God like a child with his father, who is loyal and trustworthy and it is in His ability and it is His will to benefit all who trust in Him.
“Trust is feeling in your heart that God loves you like a father loves a son, who wants only your good in every case. And integrate in your heart that you are a child of God, before you sinned and even after you have sinned. And that surely God will have compassion on you even if you are not worthy…
“This is what the Sages meant when they said: ‘In the merit of Emunah, belief in God, our forefathers were redeemed and in its merit they will be redeemed in the future’… that in the merit of the belief that we are God’s ‘firstborn son’ and have a special relationship with Him, and that no matter our spiritual state, we are always considered the king’s child, this is the secret of the redemption, for all of Israel as a whole, and for each individual’s personal redemption as well.” (Netivot Shalom, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berzovsky, Part 1, 2nd essay)
Rabbi Noach Bersovsky connects belief in God (Emunah) with the acquisition of a true sense of self and value.
Coming to the realization that God indeed exists is the first step in developing a relationship with Him. The second aspect of belief is to know that God loves us as His children, unconditionally, just like you love your children, or your parents love you. Even if we are sinners, imperfect, and have bad tendencies and character traits. Even if we consistently fail at reaching our goals and don’t seem to be living up to our potential, God loves us anyway. God created us with infinite potential and greatness in the form of our souls, and this is what should give us real self-esteem. If we are inherently Godly, beautiful, precious and good, we have value no matter what. And we can reach great heights because of that innate power.
This is what is meant by the statement “In the merit of Emunah our forefathers were redeemed (from Egypt) and in the merit of Emunah they will be redeemed in the future.” They were not redeemed because of their deeds, since the Jewish people at the time were on the lowest possible spiritual level. They were redeemed because they believed they were the children of God and that His love was unconditional.
That belief in themselves gave them sufficient energy and confidence to work and to attain spiritual heights, to the point where they could receive the Torah and experience a direct revelation of God only 49 days later on Mt. Sinai.
So too, we as individuals can reach our own personal redemption if we focus on the belief that we are the children of the Almighty, that we have at our essence a pure soul that yearns for Godliness, and that will be the impetus to work on ourselves and change.
If we see ourselves as failures, as inherently flawed, incompetent and hopeless, what are the chances we will be motivated to become better? This only leads to despair that we will ever add up to anything, so we just give up trying. However, if we remember that we are a child of the Almighty who loves us even when we are going off track, and that we are inherently good and full of potential and abilities, there is a much greater chance that we will stop the inappropriate behavior, get out of the rut and work on improving our character.
This is true trust. It is at the root of our self-esteem and at the root of our ability to love ourselves and eventually to love others “like yourself.”