the fine line between disgust and beauty


I’m not exactly sure how to put this.

You’d think the flow of articulate thought would easily flow to articulate word, but it’s a bit frustrating when you’re writing from a pet peeve to an audience that probably isn’t the target for your message. Those who most need to hear this aren’t likely to be active readers of inspirational or provocative thought. So caveat stated, here’s the story. Share it with those you think need to hear it most and blame me with the hashtag.

I read a lot. Novels. Blogs. News. Weird stuff. Online and off.

If you’ve read any of my stories here, you’ll notice I’m big on the theme of inspiring people to read, think and feel things they might not otherwise. I prize original thought and humor. Out of the box kinda stuff. Things with neat, novel twists. Stories and topics that capture concepts to which most only give passing glances, often missing something embedded within that is much richer, deeper, and more profound than the story itself. But hey, we’re busy, the regret of the moment goes undetected and we miss the speed bump that should have got our attention.

I am especially fond of humble, first person stories of achievement, adventure and selflessness. Strange, but they totally turn me on.

And then there are times they go too far and the bragging and boasting start wearing humility as disguise. That’s when I get sick.

Like, barfy sick.

As humans, I believe it’s our duty to be our brothers’ keepers. Certain subcultures make a religion out of it. Some individuals make it a way of life. You don’t read much about these people and rarely hear their stories. Most are stumbled upon serendipitously, remarkably and beautifully, as it should be.

For me, that’s the inspirational difference.

I’m talking about “humblebragging” here. I first heard the word from my pastor’s Sunday pulpit. Celebrities and grossly insecure wanna-be’s of this world are often among the most notorious offenders. Wikipedia describes the phenomenon as “subtly letting others know about how fantastic your life is while undercutting it with a bit of self-effacing humor.” An example from Twitter:

garypayton_20 About to hang my “Hall of Fame” jersey in the bowling alley at my house. #ProudMoment

Gary, congrats on making the Hall of Fame and proudly but accidentally declaring how rich you are at the same time.

That particular Sunday, my pastor used the term as a teaching tool warning against false humility, pharisaical self-publicists and self-aggrandizing narcissists. In turn, he encouraged adopting a “pay-it-forward” mentality, and then completely shutting up about the blessing on your life.

Bottom line: Truly humble and selfless people tend to keep it to themselves.

You’ve seen it before. The offenders aren’t all celebrities. Well, perhaps in their own minds, but not in mine.

The most clever offenders are those who say or post some vaguely veiled comment about their situation in such a way that begs the question. Skillfully stated, they can then so very humbly respond with more information to answer an unposed question, the private motive of which is to evoke unsolicited applause for what should more aptly be branded narcissism. Their reward: an inflated self-image of heroism, contrition, or mercy for the moment. Essentially, it sounds a little like this:

I just did something very selfless, but most importantly, it was genuine and meant a lot to the other person, but far be it from me to toot my own horn, though by telling you, I just did.

As a therapist, I was trained to look for pathological traits like this in patients. For most of us however, we detect it in others with the same feeling we get when we encounter a passive-aggressive person who makes a point of putting someone down without actually making that point. Passive-aggression is artful at the very least. We walk away from the transaction with a set of mixed emotions wondering if we were either just duly commended or horribly scolded.

Corporate and personal publicists create events for their clients for the sole opportunity to brag and boast about them. It’s commonplace often not for the sake of encouraging others toward givings and kindnesses but to create sales, profits and a desirable consumer image. We’re used to it. And while we often see through the gimmick, we still provide the expensive applause by buying the product or the lie when we know damn well they’re not the angels the publicist projects.

Of course, there are always acceptable exceptions. If you are bragging, admit it up front. If you are truly seeking others to find personal satisfaction in a charitable or philanthropic endeavor dear to your heart and want to narrate your experience in the effort, go ahead. Take the pulpit! There’s an acceptable place for these and for people who are genuinely up front about their purposes.

But in my mind, there are few more pitiful than those who boast of their selfless acts of kindness or achievement and try to make you believe they’re not.

Conversely, few things are more elegant and magnetic than the serendipitous discovery of someone’s true character from an unpublicized act.

So apart from this whole issue being a pet peeve for me, why should it be important for you?

If you’ve read this far, we can make a fair assumption you’re not one of them.

Maybe you’ve been excessive on the selfies from time to time. Perhaps you’ve shared a circumstance where you lended a hand to someone in need and the underlying motive, if you’re honest, was for likes and applause. I suppose motive is what it all boils down to.

Self promotion. Publicity. Insecurity even. Go ahead and say or do what you like. I’d much rather hear an overt, direct plea for my goodwill, flattering comment or social support than to see the same request couched in ego-masturbating words of false humility. This latter condition shows a much greater pathology–a premeditation and coercion of purpose revealing the sick, deceptive, narcissistic character who wouldn’t truly know a selfless act if it came up and bit him. Even then, he’d speak of his band aids and laud himself as a victorious survivor.

If you’re gonna feed the hungry, just do it.

If you’re gonna fast for your faith, just do it.

If you’re gonna pay someone’s power bill, just do it.

If you’re gonna give $100,000 to your favorite charity, just do it.

And shut up.

When you’re inclined to bless someone, tell no one. The feeling of keeping that secret to yourself is immensely more potent to the life of your soul than any momentary revelation to others could ever provide.

And while it’s no big thing, let me humbly state, I wrote this entire story without using spell-check.