Thoughts about Hubris

We’ve heard and probably used expressions like “she has a swelled head,” and “he’s getting too big for his britches” to describe someone who is overconfident or arrogant, traits that often lead to a lack of self-awareness and self-defeating behavior. That’s a definition of hubris which, if it becomes all-consuming, can lead to an individual’s downfall.

In ancient Greek tragedies, the main characters who display hubris usually suffer gory deaths. Plots highlight seriously dysfunctional families, where a father might kill his wife, irritating his children who slay him, squabble among themselves, and do away with each other, while one of their cousins kills his mother, providing the opening act of a fresh tragedy. It became well known that it is best to avoid hubris.

Ancient Romans were not keen on hubris and sought to remind their heroic leaders of their need to be humble. Hollywood has portrayed that in swords and sandals spectacles where the conquering general returns to Rome in a parade featuring captured treasure, slaves, enemy commanders in chains, and brave legionnaires. The general drives a golden chariot, and a slave stands behind him, holding s golden crown over his head. He’s whispering something in the general’s ear. “Memento mori.” Remember that you are but a man.

Like most, I’ve had my moments of hubris. Fortunately, my wife and three daughters formed an anti-hubris squad, forcefully confronting my moments of arrogance and self-importance, deflating my hot air. Sometimes it worked. Maybe a slave would have been more effective.

Beginning our trek to Chavin de Huantar

This is a preamble to a story about a glorious moment of hubris shared by my wife, one of my daughters, and me. It happened in the early 1980s when we were all in good enough shape to enjoy mountain trekking. Our objective was Chavin de Huantar, an archaeological site in a 10,000 foot high valley in the Cordillera Blanca about 270 miles north of Lima. It held a flat-topped basalt pyramid originating from before 1,000BC that contained a huge stele and many skulls and crossbones carved from white stone. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and had been visited by few gringos, other than archaeologists. Getting there wasn’t like discovering a new world, but we thought it would be very cool.

The trek would take five days, and we had to navigate a high pass about 17,000 feet high. We had only three days to acclimate ourselves to the altitude and were prepared to suffer some on the trail. The third morning we saw the high pass silhouetted against the startling white mountains of the Cordillera Blanca, about 2500 feet above us. The sky was crystalline blue, clouded by our breath. The trail up was easy. The elevation was not. Our guide called out “arriba.”

Huascaran, the highest mountain above us on our trek

The problem with high altitude trekking is getting enough oxygen into your lungs and blood from the thin air to let your body function well enough to go on. We had no oxygen, so at about 16,000 feet our thought processes slowed, and we did our best to concentrate on which foot we needed to raise next to get to the pass. It appeared we were moving through chest-high water, and the pass was moving away from us. Yet, at noon, we reached an open field there.

The ancient pyramid

Our guide passed around a thermos of tea, and we felt ourselves recovering from our recent efforts. We were surrounded by glistening Andes mountains, deep blue skies with marshmallow clouds, standing in a meadow of tiny yellow orchids. We conquered the mountain. We were masters of the Andes. Hubris? You bet. Buckets of hubris. Slathered in hubris.

At that moment, a black and white border collie appeared from nowhere and ran full tilt to Nancy, jumped up and bit her in the right buttock.

It didn’t break the skin, but it punctuated that moment with a powerful reminder of our humanity.

I wonder how the Romans would have done if they just used a border collie.