Pride, and Praise-Desire

When I was a boy, my father would take me and my brother and the dog up to the bald top of a mountain to pick blueberries. There want anything picturesque about the place. Its most notable feature was a radar station that buzzed intermittently, looking northward, I guess, for Russian missiles sailing over the pole.

We’d take our pitchers and hunt from scrappy bush to scrappy bush, among the white birches, lichens, moss, mushrooms, coal-rich dirt, and the boulders deposited by glaciers twenty thousand years ago. The dog rummaged about, scaring away copperheads and nibbling berries from the bushes. Birds whose names I didnt know twittered away.

We didnt twitter. My father said that you had to keep your mouth shut if your hands were going to work. He and his brothers and sisters used to climb to a place they called Whiskey Springs, to pick blueberries during the Depression, which in our part of Pennsylvania began in the thirties and lingered on and on, like malaria.

They picked berries because they needed the money. Theyd sell them in town for twenty-five cents a quart, so the berries had to be presentable. None green, no leaves, no sticks, no dirt. Theyd also top off their pails with the biggest berries they could find, those shy fellows in the shade of a heavy branch, like fat dewdrops after a cool night.

It was fun – they took Italian bread along, and pepperoni, and drank cold water from the spring. It was also serious business. In other words, glorious.

My father told me these things. I loved to pick the berries, too. Every once in a while I’d pop one in my mouth, but not too often. I wanted to get in those two quarts before we had to leave. We never said much. “Theyre good over here,” someone would say, or “Im getting seven in a bunch.”  Sometimes when my father called, I could barely hear his voice, as we’d wandered silently apart, but not apart, for the better part of an hour.        

One time when I was eight years old my father was leaning against a fence, chatting with an old man on the other side. The topic was picking berries. “The young fellows don’t pick anymore,” said the old man. “Tony here is a picker,” said my father. “He’s a good one, too. He picks them clean.” 

That was a bit of an exaggeration – I never picked as clean as my father did. But the praise meant a lot to me, and over such a simple thing! Years later, when I was about to change my major at Princeton, my father wrote to tell me that I was the smartest person he’d ever known.

That should have meant far more to me than to hear, “Tony here is a good blueberry picker,” but it didn’t. At the time, it even irritated me. But the other – I still remember it, and treasure it.


And that brings me to a mystery. We know that pride is the primal sin, but when my father praised me to the old man, I was mighty proud. And I’d have been ungrateful or callous if I had not felt proud. What is the difference between sinful pride and the desire for praise?

When, in the parable, the lord returns to his country and receives ten talents for five, he bursts out into praise, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”  Isn’t it the sweetest part of the servant’s reward to hear those words?  He basks in the light of his master’s countenance. “Enter into your master’s joy,” says the lord.

I like to read Scripture in other languages, because the strangeness of the words helps me to appreciate the strangeness of the message, and you never know whether another languages resources, or limitations, will illuminate something that your own too-familiar language leaves in the shade.

Heres what the Welshman hears: Da, was da a ffyddlawn!  Meaning, with brutal literalness, Good, servant good and faithful! The adjective and adverb are the same, the utterly simple da. The servant is good, because he does good. 

Its the fundamental thing we want to hear. “Good,” says the Father; and that praise already implies the invitation, “Enter into the joy of your master!”  For only the Father is good.

The flatterer is a liar and an enemy. He whispers that I’m good when I’m not, because he wants to fool me, to wheedle himself into my favor, to destroy me. Satan was a flatterer and a murderer from the beginning. “You shall be as gods,” he said. 

My father told me I was the smartest person he’d known, and, in my sulk, I felt little gratitude. But what was that to my father or me? I didn’t make myself. My father didn’t make me. A little bit of brains beyond the average can as well alienate as unite. A man with powerful shoulders can clear a field or crush a skull. Churchill had a way with crowds. So did Hitler.

But when he said, “My son here picks blueberries,” it meant a lot to me, because I wanted to please him. I saw that what we were doing was good, and I was grateful that he taught me how to do it. He wouldn’t have taught me it if he hadn’t cared about me, and I wouldn’t have learned it so well if I hadn’t cared about him. We never put it in those words, but that was how it was.

Jesus tells us we should be humble, and say, “We are unprofitable servants,” which is the truth. But it’s a truth that only a loving servant would say – while still hoping, trusting, that the Lord who condescends to “need” our work will say what he teaches us to long to hear. Da, was da a ffyddlawn! 

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Xabi Kiano

    Nice piece, reminds me of how much I love my own father & am grateful for the moments shared & learnings imparted.

  • grump

    Wonderful story, Tony. Especially since blueberry pie a la mode is my favorite dessert. A poem to appreciate:

    By W. Wayne Wilson (Life In Seconds, 2009)

    The praise of a father is everlasting,
    giving breath to life itself.
    It flavors bland dreams,
    and straightens their posture,
    leaving them sturdy like steel.
    It strangles fear,
    makes monsters disappear,
    and abracadabras seem real.
    It emblazons ambition
    like spreading pepper sauce,
    feeding the hunger within.
    And in the nick of time, it saves your soul,
    just to hear him say, “you did swell!”

  • M.

    Simple yet wonderfully insightful.

  • Carlos Caso-Rosendi

    A lovely story filled with wisdom. I always enjoy reading your articles. Keep them coming!

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    “I like to read Scripture in other languages, because the strangeness of the words helps me to appreciate the strangeness of the message, and you never know whether another language’s resources, or limitations, will illuminate something that your own too-familiar language leaves in the shade.”

    I can read a bit of French and reading the Psalms in this language has always had a powerful effect on me. I have often thought that the English translation leaves me flat while the French packs a wallop.

  • Seanachie

    Well done, Anthony. The praises of a father (mother too) are life-long, never forgotten, always treasured personal assets. While the focus of your piece may have been pride and humility, I believe the secondary message may have been the indispensable role that father’s and families play in one’s development. My parents words to me are as clear and encouraging today as they were many years ago. I pray that I will have had the same positive impact on my children and grandchildren.

  • Stanley Anderson

    I have a friend of the secular humanist variety who mocks the idea that God “desires” that we give Him praise. The friend uses degrading examples of despots and tyrants who demand worship from their subjects, to demonstrate how unholy and despicable the whole idea is, and that any (reasonable idea of) “God” could never want such a thing.

    It seems so clear in my mind that the difference between what this friend sees as “praise” and what Christians engage in when they praise God is as wide as the difference between – well, that’s the problem. I “know” it in the way I know that a lovely image is fundamentally different from ugliness, or goodness is from evil, but I haven’t yet found an adequate way of describing that difference between the two different types of praise (at least in a way that might make sense to my friend’s outlook).

    Since he loves hiking in Sequoia and such, I’ve tried examples of the difference between a despot’s demands and my friend’s “desire” to stand in a forest at the foot of a giant tree in awe of its beauty, and to see that as a kind of “praise” that the tree “deserves” in an “undemanding” manner, and that we delight in “giving”, but to no avail. Perhaps it is a futile effort – I’m not sure.

    But in light of your column today, I suddenly wonder if there might be a way of turning it around backwards. Instead of trying to describe the differences in “giving” praise to God (or fathers, etc), perhaps the difference between the two manners of “receiving” praise from God (or fathers, etc) in the way you talk about could be profitable. I’m just now thinking about this as I type, so I haven’t quite worked it out in my head to my satisfaction, but it gives me hope of a good-ish example or illustration waiting in the wings if I could just peer around the curtains with enough light to see it more clearly.

    And writing of “desire” and “hope” in the paragraphs above suddenly also reminds me of my comments in a column of yours from quite a while back where I mentioned C.S. Lewis’ definition of “Joy” as an intense, almost sickeningly painful – and yet a type of pain to be desired above all other pleasures – longing for “I know not what.” I had suggested that his meaning for “Joy” was a kind of pre-conversion version of Scriptural Hope, i.e., his definition of “Joy” was a holy longing that simply does not yet know the “object” of its longing (Lewis goes on to talk about how we mistake worldly things for that object of Joy, and that if we are truthful with ourselves we will discover that those worldly things are only a cheat. But he concludes that if we honestly pursue that Joy to its true end, we will eventually realize that it is a desire – as indeed all desires are in a dim sense – for Heaven and God.)

    And THAT makes me wonder if praise, in the good and holy sense, is not somehow intimately related to Scriptural Hope as desire for God. As you noted in your column, “I _wanted_ to please him.” Is there a good and useful illustration along that line for my friend? Not sure yet. But I’ll keep thinking on it – your column today, wonderful as it is in itself, has ignited some possible avenues for me to explore in this “side-issue” of his problem with the idea of giving praise to God.

  • Tony

    Dear Stanley: Thank you for your thoughtful post, and your very perceptive questions.

    Your friend hasn’t really read much, I’m afraid. Let’s look at things from the pagan Greek point of view. They worshiped their gods in the open air, under the blue sky. They attributed to their gods every kind of beauty and excellence they knew, and even if it was, in the popular mind, anthropomorphic, still there was a sense of the reverse direction — that is, not that the gods are like us, but that we are most like the gods when we shine in excellence; in the craft of our hands, the gifts of our minds, the speed of our legs, the strength of our arms, the wisdom of our experience, and so forth.

    To praise, to give glory, is to open oneself up to the excellence of someone else, and in that sense it is to participate in that excellence. The Greeks understood this, and so did the Hebrews, despite their very different conceptions of divinity. If I rejoice in the excellence of Shakespeare, that does not diminish me; it is my way of sharing in that excellence. It is an act of humility in one sense: I know that I am NOT Shakespeare. In another sense it is the act of a great-hearted person: only the petty and envious will not want to acknowledge excellence where it lies. It is, if it proceeds from a true heart, sheer joy.

    The praise of God far transcends these earthly instances of praise, but the earthly can help us understand the heavenly. Essentially it is the manifestation of wonder and affirmation: How good it is that YOU exist! You and no other — that you ARE, that you are WHO you are, and even that you are greater than I am; in the case of God, the very source of my being.

    Can tyrants demand praise? Can they? They always do. What does that prove? They want to appear like gods; they want to revel not in true praise but in abject flattery and the cringing fear of their subjects. The praise of God bears as much resemblance to the flattering of a tyrant as the true love of a husband for his wife has to an hour with a ten dollar whore.

  • Elizabeth Sheehy

    I’m sending this column to my husband and my son; they need to read and relate vis a’ vis yard work…

    I will have to wait until I reach the Judgment Seat to find out if I get any praise in with the condemnation and correction I know I deserve!

  • Schm0e

    I don’t know if I’m convinced. How would you have felt if your father said, “He’s a slacker [ie an “unprofitable servant”], but he can pick blueberries”?

  • debby

    i just love this site.
    the writers and those who comment.
    today’s Mass readings (Ascension Thursday) tell us that the Very Spirit of God (Awesome God – see the Psalm)has been given to us: (Eph 1:17-23)
    That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and of revelation, in the knowledge of him: The eyes of your heart enlightened, that you may know what the hope is of the glory of his inheritance in the saints. And what is the exceeding greatness of his power towards us, who believe according to the operation of the might of his power, Which he wrought in Christ, raising him up from the dead, and setting him on his right hand in the heavenly places. Above all principality, and power, and virtue, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come. And he hath subjected all things under his feet, and hath made him head over all the church, Which is his body, and the fulness of him who is filled all in all.”

    sometimes in my daily life, i can flounder and get weighed down. then i come here, and a brother like blueberry picking Tony or Walking the Way Robert or Convert Brad or holy Fr. Schall write what is on their hearts or minds and i find blueberries in my bucket, friends walking this way of conversion toward holiness! i am reminded again how much i need the whole Body of Christ to not only be raised from my death and live, but to Ascend!
    this site is simply wonderful and renews hope!
    i just wanted to say, “thank you” and “i love you all”.
    Let us WELCOME the Ascension of the Lord so as to be MORE OPEN to THE HOLY SPIRIT.
    It is This Spirit truly present in you all who causes JOY and reorients my heart from a downward Pride-pull to an Upward Desire For All HIM Free Ascent.

  • Stanley Anderson

    Tony, thank you for a wonderful reply to my comments/questions in my previous post. So much good and helpful stuff there, but I know what sort of “answer” the friend would make. It would be something along the line of “Why would God create such a universe in the first place that incorporated the ‘need’ for praise. The mere act of creating a universe like that simply proves Him to be a form of “tyrant demanding praise” since incorporating praise (of whatever, but to Him especially) so fundamentally into the fabric of the universe is tantamount to “demanding” it of the universe and its inhabitants. QED.

    But I think the best tack (after much prayer and, yes, praise, of course), is exactly along the line of what you emphasized about praise being a way of participating in, or of sharing in, that excellence. As a side-note, the sharing/participation aspect is, I think, also a key distinction in a particularly Catholic outlook, especially when it comes to the idea of God allowing us to “participate” in the redemption of the world by letting us share in his sacrifice with our own sufferings given up to him, an idea many Protestants – not all of course – seem to have a problem with in my experience.

    In any case, back to the praise issue, the sharing/participating aspect would seem to maybe help get around the rather egotistical (and I use that word boldly to include myself in the whole set of discussions with him) idea that “I am sufficient unto myself and don’t need God to keep me going” attitude that I think is at the base of such misconceptions about God and praise (and even of my attempts at countering his arguments with “clever” illustrations).

    When my wife and I joined the Catholic Church seven years ago, our priest had us read the Catechism. I was expecting to find lots of ‘thou shalts’ and ‘shalt nots’ (and of course there were those to be found), but I was stunned and delighted to find instead that overall it was written more like a beckoning to or longing for the reader to come over into this wonderful place to participate and bask in the goodness and joy of God’s Will, rather than a kind of “this is what will happen if you don’t” threat.

    And that is why I think the participation/sharing aspect seems promising – it has that beckoning-to-something-more-wonderful-yet aspect without so much dealing with the ego’s denial of need up front. Perhaps it has something of the Trojan Horse strategy to “sneak past” those seemingly impenetrable walls of the ego. The dismantling of those walls can be worked on later from the inside, if once gotten past, I might hope.

    But how to build the horse is the hard part at present, I suppose.

  • Lisa Andrews

    Thank you for such a delightful story and thoughtful interpretation. One aspect of the different reaction you had to your father’s two compliments involves the importance of free will in our use of the gifts God has given us. In the first case, your father qualified the description of you as a good berry picker because you chose to “pick them clean”. In the second case of declaring you “the smartest person he ever knew”, he is only stating an attribute about you that was not of your choosing. If he had added, “and he uses it to write beautiful reflections”, would you have treasured it as much as the first compliment?

  • Tony

    Stanley: Thank you again, and let’s continue the conversation about praise and love — or praise and wonder. It is all over the place in the Fathers, and in the great poets both pagan and Christian. I think of Sidney’s elaborate baroque couplet in Astrophil and Stella; it means one thing on the lips of the eager Astrophil, who is wooing a married woman who for her part rejects his advances with gentle but firm constancy, and another thing on the lips of the author himself. In other words, it describes very finely the phenomenon of praise, in the person who gives praise:

    Not thou by praise, but praise in thee is raised:
    It is a praise to praise, when thou art praised.

    Among the five or six things that the couplet can mean, grammatically, is this: the act of praising is itself an exalting thing; when “thou,” Stella, or perhaps Mary, or God Himself, is praised, it is a “praise to praise,” that is, an exaltation of the act of praising (a praise TO PRAISING), or an exaltation of the one who praises (a praise FOR THE GIVER OF PRAISE to praise).

    Conversely, why is it that we are so disappointed or even hurt when we praise someone who dismisses the praise or will not acknowledge it? It feels like a snub; an offer of friendship rejected. We do not consider such a person to be humble. We consider him to be cold and aloof. The warm and human thing to do is to allow the one who praises to enjoy, by praise, the excellent thing you have done; not as an egotist, who wants to be the center of attention, but as a fellow-sharer in the objective value of the excellence. The truly noble man is himself so entranced by the value of courage, for example, that when his valor is praised, he feels that it applies less to him as an individual than to valor itself.

    Or: envy and resentment speak the language of equality. Love never speaks that language. To the lover, it is an enhancement of his love to learn that his beloved is more beautiful than he knew.

    And yet we Christians believe that this God, in His mercy, descended to dwell among us and share our infirmities, so that we praise Christ also for thinking equality with God nothing to grasp at, as a robber, but emptied himself …

  • Tony

    Lisa: That is an excellent question. My guess is that I don’t think I would have treasured it as much. I’m not sure that that reflects well upon me, but I can say this about it: my father taught me to do the one thing, but he didn’t teach me to do the other. I was happy to please my teacher …

  • Stanley Anderson

    Tony, maybe you know of the classic Peanuts comic strip where Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Linus are lying on a hill on their backs looking up at the clouds. Lucy asks Linus what images he can see in them. Linus lists a map of British Honduras, a profile of painter and sculptor Thomas Eakins, and the stoning of Stephen with the Apostle Paul off to the side. Lucy says “that’s very good…what do you see, Charlie Brown?” And Charlie Brown (hmmm…suddenly thinking that it is funny how we can’t simply call him “Charlie” – we must call him by his full name, “Charlie Brown”) answers, “I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind.”

    Your lovely reply above makes me feel a bit like Charlie Brown (are smiley faces allowed on this blog?), but it does provoke more thought in my contemplations here, so I’ll toss out a couple more farm animals.

    I am especially enlightened by your line about the noble man praised for his valor, “he feels that it applies less to him as an individual than to valor itself.” This, to me, is such a neat and clean distinction that it seems the perfect “answer” to my friend’s problem with praise to God – with the addition perhaps (not sure exactly how to put this properly) that, unlike the distinction between the noble man who has valor and valor as a “thing” unto itself, God in his divinity IS (or would be, analogously) the valor so that praising one praises the other of necessity.

    And so also, in some sense, God “is” praise itself (embodied by the doctrine of the Trinity), leading, in a fashion, to the bit you quoted, where it is a “praise to praise” (though, wow, what a tangle of convoluted ideas can develop along that line – maybe not the “perfect” reply, given its complications, for the sort of discussions of praise with my friend at this point after all? Not sure).

    And by the way – full disclosure here – I also so love your reply’s illumination because it weaves in very nicely with a portion of something I am currently trying to compose (with many frustrations and cross-outs and seemingly endless and useless revisions) that talks about, among other things, Christ’s words “I am the way…” as being literal and distinct from simply meaning “I will show you the way…”, and making interesting connections to the Philippians line that, coincidentally you also mentioned, about descending and emptying himself, as part of “being” the way, but that’s another matter.

    Anyway, one more quick thought that your comments bring to mind is about how the author of Psalm 119 describes, over and over, in 176 ways (the number of verses in the Psalm) his “delight in your law, O Lord” as though it were not so much a thing to be obeyed by command, but obeyed because it is such a delightful thing that obedience to it is a naturally springing desire (however much we may fail at actually accomplishing that obedience). It seems so hard for us to delight in it as joyfully as Psalm 119’s author – perhaps because we DO see it only as a command to obey instead of as a delightful thing in itself? And thus the same problem with my friend’s notion of praise itself. Those two ways of looking at praise are so different – but then that was pretty much the point of your column originally, I guess. Full circle…

    As I read back over this, it seems a bit rambling to me, but hopefully some of my enthusiasm for the ideas comes through despite all their ducky-ness and horsie-ness (or should that be Trojan horsie-ness in reference to my earlier post?)

  • Tony

    Dear Stanley — I remember that cartoon! And you are seeing more than duckies and horsies!

    I think you are right on all counts.

    On “way”: It startles me sometimes to see that the Fathers often call Jesus by the name of Truth: Truth has revealed to us, Truth says, and so on. It is the same with Way. The word in Greek is hodos, and it is all over the place in the New Testament. Philip Jenkins has a very nice essay on it in this month’s Chronicles (a guilty pleasure of mine). The disciples on the road to Emmaus — no, on the hodos, on the Way, when the Way shows up beside them! The man who fell among thieves — fell by the wayside, the Way.

    I agree with you entirely about Psalm 119. The author lies in bed at night contemplating the beauty of the law; it is sweet to him, a delight. The great Christian poets and dramatists all understood this principle. Here’s the first stanza of a short poem by Herbert, if I can remember it aright:

    Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life;
    Such a Way as mends in length,
    Such a Truth as ends all strife,
    Such a Life as giveth breath.

    Law is not in tension with human freedom; it is its precondition. Otherwise we would but slump into the beast….