As I wrote in my previous post, the Men’s Group at my church has been reading and discussing the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by the philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. The “capital vices” were first described by the Desert Fathers and were seen as source vices from which a multitude of other vices spring. I’ve been exploring how these vices are likely to manifest themselves at different phases of life. As an older adult, I’m particularly interested how these harmful thoughts and inclinations occur among those of us who are older. I’ve written already about envy. This post is about vainglory.
What does it mean to be prone to vainglory? DeYoung defines it as “the excessive and disordered desire for recognition and approval from others.” The person hungers for acclaim, praise, glory to such an extent that he or she seeks it even when it isn’t deserved. It’s not so much that the person wants to be better than others; he or she just wants to be perceived as better than others. It’s about the display or appearance of excellence, not excellence itself. It is thus not genuine but vain.
There’s nothing bad about wanting some measure of recognition or approval from others. It’s when this desire becomes excessive that problems occur. It can give rise to boastfulness, for example. Also, it may produce hypocrisy–putting on a false front to gain favor from others. DeYoung cites Thomas Aquinas to the effect that the worst sort of vainglory is the failure to give glory to God as the true source of all about us that is praiseworthy. In vainglory, we are stealing for ourselves the recognition and praise that properly belongs to our creator.
At first blush, it may seem that this is a vice primarily of the young. More young than old people seem to be seeking fame or devoting their all to burnishing their reputations. As we get older, we aren’t as likely to frequent venues where recognition-seeking is prevalent. Part of this is choice, but of course part of it is out of necessity–the athlete used to the roar of the crowd might want that recognition as much as ever, but his or her aging body no longer can perform with the same degree of prowess.
Retirement might be particularly challenging for a vainglorious person whose work performance has been a primary source of recognition and approval. More and more, Americans are delaying retirement. In many cases this due to financial reasons; in other cases, people just love what they do too much to leave it. I wonder, though, how often the vainglorious desire for recognition plays some role in the decision to work longer.
The vainglorious person who has retired from work or other activities that used to reliably produce attention and approval may crave the praise or recognition that suddenly is harder to come by. Some may find new avenues–for example, I know one recent retiree who has taken singing lessons and searched out opportunities to perform publicly. Unfortunately, given the tendency in modern culture for the elderly to be invisible (I wrote about this issue here), many who desire excessive (or even average) levels of attention don’t receive it. Some may lapse into despair.
There’s one other way that older adults may be prone to vainglory. We are known to reminisce about the past, a practice that can be useful in affirming identity and discerning the meaning of the lives we’ve lived. If I’m a person particularly prone to vainglory, I may reminisce primarily about life episodes in which I received acclaim, was granted rewards, or was the center of attention. I imagine most of us have enough memories of getting positive attention that we would never run out of vainglorious incidents to revisit.
The lack of attention given to older adults can be a problem, but can also be an opportunity. Being ignored can serve as an invitation for some older adults to practice silence and solitude. DeYoung suggests that these spiritual disciplines are effective counterweights to vainglory. By removing ourselves from the voices that bombard us–including our own–our focus shifts from getting the attention of others to giving our attention to God.
Personally, I tend to be uncomfortable if people attend to me too much, but I do relish the positive regard of people whom I respect. I sometimes replay in my mind conversations with them, dwelling on the clever things I said that I think may have impressed them. This is probably the way I’m most prone to vainglory. And it’s a way that takes little effort; I could spend much of my day reveling in fantasies of wowing others while never having to leave the comfortable confines of my recliner. It turns out that vainglory, the ostensibly most public of the capital vices, has an interior dimension that is quite powerful in its own right. Thus, to battle vainglory I need to do more than just spend time alone, since my thoughts could still be on receiving acclaim. I instead need solitude, the discipline that attunes me to the presence of God. He is the sun, while the praises of others are merely flickering candles.