Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

September 30, 2007


Conceit is an ugly attitude that can mess up your life


      An idiom is a common saying or phrase. Here is an example: “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” Some idioms hang around for years, being passed on from one generation to another. I have been thinking about one that must be several centuries old: “Too big for your britches.”

          When we say a person is too big for his britches, we mean that he is conceited. He has an exaggerated sense of his own importance. A story about Mother Teresa, who has been in the news lately, reminded me of the britches idiom.

          After participating in a workshop led by Mother Teresa, a preacher had the high privilege of having tea and a conversation with the famous nun. At one point as they discussed her ministry with the sick and dying, he asked her, “Mother, what is your biggest problem?” Quickly she replied, “Professionalism.”

          Momentarily speechless, stunned by her one-word answer, the clergyman said, “My jaw dropped. I had expected her to say something about the difficulties involved in trying to hold her community of nuns together. Or the difficulty of determining who would be her ultimate successor as the authority figure among the sisters.”

          Mother Teresa then explained her answer: “I have five sisters getting M.D. degrees and far greater numbers getting R.N., L.P.N. and M.S.W. degrees. But a funny thing happens. When they come back from their education, they are concerned about titles and offices and parking privileges.”

          How did she deal with their elevated sense of their importance? She said, “I take all of that away from them and I send them to the Hospice of the Dying. There they hold people’s hands, and pray with them and feed them. After six months of that, they typically get things straight again and remember their vocation to be a spiritual presence first, and a professional presence second.”

          Those nuns were too big for their britches but Mother Teresa knew how to help them come down off their high horse and get it right.

          Most of us delight in seeing a conceited person get his comeuppance. When someone gets knocked off his lofty pedestal, we usually say, “He got what he deserved.” Sometimes when punishment seems slow to come, we may say, “Somebody needs to knock him (or her) down a peg or two.”

          We usually admire people for their skills but if they seem cocky, as though they know it all, our admiration fades in a hurry. That is why we love stories about famous people who “got it right” by having a humble attitude. Two such stories come to mind.

          An American tourist visited missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer at his clinic in Africa. Schweitzer was world famous at the time. The tourist was shocked one morning to see Doctor Schweitzer pushing a wheel barrow across the grounds. “Why, Doctor Schweitzer,” he said, “how is it that you are pushing a wheel barrow?” Schweitzer replied casually, “With two hands.” Obviously Schweitzer did not have an unduly high opinion of himself.

          Even better is the story of George Washington Carver, the famous educator whose research led to the development of hundreds of uses of peanuts and sweet potatoes. An African American born to a slave family in Missouri, Carver one day at a train station in Atlanta heard a wealthy white woman say to him, “Boy, carry my luggage to the train for me.”

          Without a word Carver picked up the woman’s luggage and placed it on the train for her. Cheerfully he accepted the dime she gave him and went on his way. His sense of worth was not diminished by the woman’s failure to recognize and respect him as a distinguished inventor and educator. He was not puffed up by an inflated ego.

          Humility can make even the most homely person beautiful. Conceit, on the other hand, is an ugly attitude that can make our lives miserable. It prevents us from being fun to live with. And worse of all, when conceit has wrecked our lives, and driven a wedge between us and other people, we have no one to blame but ourselves. It is never someone else’s fault that you got too big for your britches.

          The moral to remember when you start thinking you are hot stuff is this: You will live a longer, happier life if you don’t take yourself too seriously. And conceit will not have a chance to split your britches. + + +