The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


You can visit the head of Queen Idia in the British Museum. Cast in brass, in the old Kingdom of Benin (which lay in present-day south-west Nigeria), in the early sixteenth century, the likeness is astonishingly beautiful. There’s stillness and dignity to her. Her eyelids are lowered. Her chin and lips are set firm. Hers is not an expression of desire or even triumph. It’s neither needy nor smug. Instead, it shows a woman who appears contained, even demure, but with an unwavering sense of her own accomplishment. Idia was the mother of Oba Esigie, who ruled Benin from the late fifteenth to the early sixteenth centuries. She was one of the most powerful people of her society, honored for her prowess as a military strategist and for presiding over the ritualistic life of the court at a time when Benin cultural life was flourishing. No surprise that she should have such a powerful sense of her own value.

For most of us, pride must come and go in waves. It’s a feeling of fullness, of form and outline, that surges up when we overcome an obstacle or master something difficult. Pride can fill us up so much that we burst, and tears follow, as when we are recognized with an award, or see our children flourish (see: NAKHES). But even in these watery moments, our insides—which can often feel incoherent—seem to be colored in, every hidden corner glistening with reds, oranges and blues. Where SHAME makes us want to hide from view, we feel pride when we allow ourselves—even if only momentarily—to be seen.

Strange, then, that we have also come to think of pride as an emotion that blinds us too. Philosophers distinguish between false and true pride—and even if such moralistic tones can be off-putting (who’s to say which is which?) there’s something useful in this distinction. There are many reasons why even the pride that philosophers call “true” has been treated with caution, and why it is considered a sin in most of the world’s religions. Pride might blind us to our limitations, make us overreach and commit the sin the ancients called hubris, which comes before a fall. It can be intransigent, leaping to attack at the slightest scratch (see: ABHIMAN). But the “false” pride, known by some as “false-friend pride,” is different. It’s there when we think we’re backing ourselves, but are in fact, being defensive and brittle. This is the pride that makes us refuse help, or resist the urge to apologize. This is the pride that can’t admit lack and loss, and that therefore makes it very hard to acknowledge one’s truer self—the self that is partial, and dissatisfied and needy. This is the pride that is most common and least trusted of all. In Alice Munro’s short story “Pride,” the unnamed narrator is overcome with fury when his only friend suggests, quite casually, that a quick operation would fix his hare lip. Is it INDIGNATION he feels? A sense that he is being asked to correct some “flaw” about himself? Later in the story the real dilemma comes into view: “She was right. But how could I explain that it was just beyond me to walk into some doctor’s office and admit that I was wishing for something I hadn’t got?”

In 2010 the director of the British Museum interviewed the Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka about the Benin Bronzes, a collection of metalwork to which the head of Queen Idia belongs. Soyinka spoke movingly about his experience of seeing the bronzes: it “increases a sense of self-esteem because it makes you understand that African society actually produced some great civilizations, established some great cultures.” So powerful has been the colonial propaganda depicting Africans as backward and uncivilized, that even the British soldiers who entered Benin Palace in 1897 and found it lavishly decorated could not countenance that the ornate sculptures and panels had been made locally. They thought they were stealing something already looted from Europe by the Benin army. In the face of such cultural dismissal, the undertaking to develop a sense of pride in one’s own history and identity might seem a tall order. This is the pride that the twentieth century’s various consciousness-raising fiestas—gay pride, black pride, disability pride—have their sights trained on. Soyinka’s response to seeing the Benin Bronzes simultaneously describes an experience of lack and of pride: because it’s sometimes only when we are able to admit what has been taken from us that we can feel ourselves to be whole again.

For more on self-esteem, see: CONTENTMENT.